Political Cowardice in Europe


November 19, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- The European Community has on its eastern and southeastern frontiers bloody war, communal savagery, refugees in the millions -- mounting economic and political crisis, and the risk of still more breakdowns.

What preoccupies its leaders?

How Francois Mitterrand can outwit his rivals during the final months of his mandate.

How Conservative politicians in Britain can survive plainly incompetent leadership together with national economic dilapidation.

How Helmut Kohl can make use of rightist emotions and xenophobia in Germany to keep the Social Democrats out of office and his party in.

How Italy's Christian Democratic and Socialist power and money brokers can fight off the regional ''leagues'' and the threat of reform.

Six weeks before the 1993 European Single Market is scheduled to open its doors, the mighty engine of European unification has flown off the rails. As it went, it took with it the chance of early agreement on a new GATT trade-liberalization accord between the United States and Single Market Europe -- and with the other trading partners of the two.

The cause is domestic political cowardice in Europe -- what the French, who ought to know, call ''politicians' politics.'' The much-blamed French have contributed most to the GATT negotiations' breakdown, but for the larger fiasco responsibility has to be more widely distributed.

It goes first to those who decided that the pre-Maastricht ''summit'' negotiations last year should develop a program for European political integration.

This was a lightly unconsidered decision taken at one of the regular meetings between Chancellor Kohl and President Mitterrand. Staffs feel they should come up with something new on these occasions, to interest press and public in what have become routine affairs, and a new call for political unification seemed harmless.

Luxembourg and Dutch enthusiasts for a federated Europe, and the European Community staff in Brussels, ran with the idea. The result was the Maastricht draft treaty, which even after much redrafting constituted an unprecedented attempt to substitute planned political and strategic unification for Europe's past model of progress through pragmatic economic integration.

The result we know. The Danish public, consulted by referendum, rejected the treaty.

The French public, whom Mr. Mitterrand chose to consult -- for reasons of ''politicians' politics'' -- in a referendum he took for granted he would easily win, also proved hostile to the treaty. The French gave approval by a margin of only 51.05 percent of the votes cast.

That emboldened British enemies of European federalism. Given the opportunity provided by the economic-policy fiascos of the new Major government, Conservative Party anti-Europeans rose in rebellion, causing John Major -- his back against the wall -- to attempt a blunt demonstration of political authority which, in the event, he proved not to possess.

He had to buy off the Tory opposition at the last minute by secretly telling the rebel MPs that he would hold off Parliament's final ratification of the treaty until the Danes hold another referendum. If he keeps to this (he since has wobbled), it means not until May or June, and possibly even later, since the Danes now have little reason to rush things along.

This quite possibly means a lingering death for the Maastricht agreement, and interment of the political hopes people across western Europe have attached to its ratification.

None of this was necessary. It has been the result of Mr. Mitterrand's maneuvering in anticipation of legislative elections in the spring, and Mr. Major's desperate weakness after the self-inflicted blows of currency collapse and forced abandonment of a reckless plan to shut down a large part of the British coal industry.

Add to this the GATT crisis.

The United States and the EC are struggling to impose each's individual version of agricultural protectionism upon the other, in general indifference to the consequences of this protectionism for the Third World, which needs to be self-sufficient in food and not to sacrifice its peasant agriculture to subsidized imports.

Again France had chosen to privilege domestic political interests over larger considerations, not because it expects trade war with the United States -- President Mitterrand reiterated that last week -- but in the apparent conviction (for which no known evidence exists) that the Clinton administration will make concessions to Europe which the Bush administration has withheld.

This conduct upon the part of Europe's leaders, who otherwise might wish to measure themselves against the Monnets, Schumanns and Adenauers of the past, displays an abandonment of that larger vision of the interests of nations which animated those predecessors. They are turning Europe inward.

They no doubt are doing so in part because of the size of the external problems, those of war and disorder, and ethnic cleansing, as well as of economic rivalry. They seem implicitly to be saying that there is nothing to be done about such matters, so let us distract ourselves from intractable problems.

But it was by attacking intractable problems that other generations of leaders have looked for a greatness nowhere in prospect today.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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