Paris. -- Self-inflicted wounds are the worst, and Western Europe today reels from them, wounds of uncalculated ambition and failure of foresight. The European monetary union has in recent days been battered again by speculators, but this has also been a consequence of the plan's own overreaching ambition -- an ambition the European governments have not had the means to fulfill.
The danger now is grievous enough for some in Brussels to forecast the collapse of European unity itself, if currency union eventually goes. However European union surely does not depend on currency union. It rests on a political commitment to European reconciliation. Unity has been constructed by four decades of eminently practical steps in economic integration, which have brought political integration with them. The plan for monetary union was meant to be the biggest of these steps, but it has proven the unluckiest one, unlucky because uncharacteristic -- a departure from successful precedent.
Monetary union was an uncharacteristic and imprudent step because it involves matters that governments cannot control. From coal and steel industry unification in the 1950s to creation of a single European market at the start of the 1990s, the successive steps in building Europe all were within the power of governments to carry out. They may have been complicated and difficult, but they were matters that parliaments and officials could order to be done, in the confidence that they would be done.
The value of money is not subject to determination by governments, except incompletely and indirectly, as the eventual result of economic as well as fiscal policy decisions, subsequently subjected to popular and political reaction and the forces of the economic marketplace.
Relative currency values are subject to variables in the interactions of national economies with different characteristics and different problems, existing at different stages in the economic cycle or in different stages of development.
It is, for example, reasonably clear at the moment that the French economy is in fundamentally better condition than the German. But Germany's interest rates are kept high because of the inflationary threat to Germany created by the unrealistic terms on which the West German economy was united with the quasi-moribund East German economy. France, which has the lowest inflation in Western Europe, has had to keep its interest rates high as well, in order to defend the franc's value in the monetary union, producing recession and unemployment in France.
What suits the one economy discomfits the other. Neither government can be expected indefinitely to sacrifice its national interests to those of the other government. France has until now subordinated its interest in economic relaunch and lowered unemployment to the German interest in fighting inflation, believing that the longer term goal of an eventual common currency and France's larger political interest in maintaining Germany's European integration justify the sacrifice. In principle, they undoubtedly do. However, it may be that the sacrifice is for a mistaken purpose.
The genius of Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman in beginning Europe's union in the 1950s was to propose practical steps of obvious common advantage and let the larger consequences flow from that. Currency union, like the measures of political and security policy unification contained in the Maastricht Treaty program for further European integration, has been an attempt to make a big programmatic leap forward, with the details to be filled in afterward. It reverses the Monnet-Schuman method. It hasn't really worked.
This has been a very bad year for European integration. The fiasco over Yugoslavia, the appalling failure of the Europeans to take any coherent initiative to halt the war and the atrocities, plus the political drama provoked in Denmark, France and Britain by the Maastricht Treaty debate, and Britain's expulsion from the European monetary union, followed by speculative international attack upon currencies still in the union, have all produced European division in place of union.
It is possible that this will continue. The danger is not of some dramatic collapse. It is rather that the community's morale will vanish, and that a gradual decline will follow. Despite the fact that the community's members have an interest in its continued existence, which far outweighs any national interest that might be served by its dissolution, it is imaginable that the forces of disintegration, which are considerable, will eventually prevail. The Maastricht proposals might prove to have been the beginning of the end, not the new beginning they were intended to become.
However, unlike the value of 12 currencies, this is within the power of governments to decide. Do the West Europeans push aside these big and supposedly visionary programs for all-or-nothing union, and get back to the practical work by which European union has until now been constructed? Or do they turn inward again, to their separate national interests?
The answer will be of great interest to the United States as well as to Europeans, since the United States has in more than a symbolic sense been Europe's 13th member -- ally of the other 12, promoter of this union which, until now, has seemed the guarantor of European peace, generator of a common prosperity.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.