A Two-Track Europe?


The Belgians, the Italians and especially the British won't like it. But rescuing Europe from its current malaise probably depends on France and Germany once more getting their act together and presenting their EC partners with a fait accompli.

The European Community faces savagery on its Balkan porch, potential chaos from Algiers to Moscow, and a more civil but still ominous disarray in its own ranks. Europe needs a smaller core of decisive and truly unified nations to put out whatever fires are extinguishable and to contain those that aren't. The current community of 12 -- already too large and too diverse in interests -- is pulling the fire truck in almost 12 different directions.

France and Germany alone, however, could theoretically marshal the economic and military muscle to set a straighter course. The rest of Europe could then help out or stay on the sidelines, according to capability and whim.

Crisis in the EC is nothing new. On numerous occasions throughout its history, the Community has appeared stalled and even hopeless. Each time, France and Germany took it upon themselves to lead the way -- announcing a project and then moving forward with whichever of their neighbors agreed. And in each case, the initially recalcitrant neighbors eventually rallied to the cause. All indications suggest the newly-elected French government will be as committed to the Franco-German efforts as its predecessor.

The original European Coal and Steel Community of 1952, the EEC itself (founded in 1958), and the 1978 Paris-Bonn initiative to link the franc and mark through a "European Monetary System" all fit this pattern. Under Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl (as odd a couple as the two countries they represent), the Franco-German motor for Europe has been even more impressive, culminating in the 1990 proposal for a European "political union" that led to the 1991 signing of the Maastricht treaty.

Like its predecessors, Maastricht was a Franco-German effort to catapult Europe out of difficulty. The idea came largely from Mr. Mitterrand, who was irritated that Germany intended to put itself back together without asking permission from the victors of World War II. Mr. Mitterrand tried and failed to block or slow the reunification. But the Germans were happy to grant Paris a consolation prize: faster European unity, to create the gilded cage that would restrain German power and ambitions. Germany even agreed to give up the deutsche mark.

Yet by the time it became a treaty acceptable to all 12 members of the EC, the political union was already looking frayed. After 18 months of bickering over political, military and economic objectives, the Maastricht negotiations had produced a

patchwork of concessions and compromises that resulted in an unreadable treaty of hundreds of pages and thousands of clauses, sub-chapters and cross-references and other legal somersaults. It was hardly an elegant constitution. Now even this mediocre result is in doubt, with Danish voters having rejected it, the British unwilling to risk a ratification vote, and a currency crisis having blasted Italy and Britain out of the EMS.

All of this raises an old but still pertinent question: Should Germany and France, perhaps together with the small Benelux countries, now move forward alone, hoping eventually to bring the others in their wake?

In economic terms, a monetary union comprising this smaller core would certainly be feasible immediately, as former Bundesbank President Karl-Otto Pohl, a tireless critic of the larger union, keeps pointing out.

In macroeconomic terms, the French and German economies have already converged. France's victory over inflation is one of Europe's great success stories. French price inflation is now lower than the German rate (which shot up because of the costs of reunification and Mr. Kohl's Reaganesque strategy for financing them). The Belgians and Dutch are also able to keep up with the Germans, and Luxembourg, tiny and rich, presents no problem either. These five could set up a European currency union tomorrow, inviting Britain, Italy and others to join when they are ready.

Military cooperation is also well under way and seems rather more feasible than the wider "common foreign and security policy" sought at Maastricht. Last year's Kohl-Mitterrand agreement to set up a Franco-German military corps of 35,000 soldiers is but the latest (and most far-reaching) in a long line of bilateral security initiatives.

To be sure, the Franco-German corps has problems, including the heavy pacifist baggage of the German left. German troops are for now legally (or at least politically) prohibited from acting in the very sort of contingencies for which the corps might be most useful, such as peacekeeping missions outside of Europe or an intervention in Yugoslavia.

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