European Unity? There's No Alternative

ELIZABETH POND

September 23, 1993|By ELIZABETH POND

Brussels. -- European Union isn't dead yet. All those epitaphs in the American press are greatly exaggerated.

Sure, the European Monetary System exploded last month. Yugoslavia trumpets the European Community's inability to stop bloodshed on its doorstep. Public opinion in Germany resists giving up its beloved Deutsche mark for a common European ''ecu.'' And Paris and Bonn, the only partners who can make anything move in Europe, are at loggerheads over the interminable GATT trade negotiations.

Apart from that, European integration is surging ahead. Ten of the 12 members (Britain and Denmark are still dragging their feet) are determined to knit their continent still closer in a historic transformation.

Thus, in a few weeks the German supreme court will (presumably) approve the constitutionality of further cession of national sovereignty in the Maastricht Treaty of last December. Bonn will then be the last to ratify the ambitious Maastricht ''constitution'' of European economic and political union. That European Union will formally come into being November 1. The )) European Monetary Institute, the forerunner of a European central bank, will be born January 1. Sweden, Finland, Austria and probably Norway will join the club in 1995. And the 16 members will then sail into the ''Intergovernmental Conference'' of 1996 that will move toward a common European foreign policy, devise more democratic controls over EC decisions, and set the timetable for a single currency toward the turn of the century.

To any skeptics who ask about all the setbacks of the past year, every EC official and diplomat here has the same answer: ''There's no alternative.'' European countries are too interdependent economically, environmentally and politically; they simply can't solve their problems at a national level anymore. In fact, everyone else's economies are so dependent today on decisions of the German Bundesbank that maintaining national financial ''sovereignty'' really means being dictated to by a Bundesbank that has no outside checks on its actions. Yielding powers to a European central bank would actually increase rather than decrease other nations' influence by giving them a voice in what are now solo German decisions.

One EC senior civil servant illustrates the lack of alternative by the decisions of traditionally neutral Sweden, Finland and Austria to join the EC. ''The fundamental debate [there is]: What is the nature or your place in Europe? Are you going to be marginalized in the north, or are you going to be a player?''

This non-choice is even more compelling for the new democracies of Central Europe, which are clamoring for admission to ''Europe'' proper, as they think of the EC.

''Widening'' the EC to bring in both the rich Scandinavians and the poor Central Europeans is not proceeding -- as the British hoped -- at the cost of ''deepening'' the pan-European institutions. Initially the next step in deepening -- giving collective European decisions and institutions more clout -- was to wait until that ''Intergovernmental Conference'' of 1996. Yet Bonn and even Paris -- now that several French attempts to wrest leadership away from the powerful Germans have failed -- can't wait that long. They will already put forward new proposals for accelerating the process at the special EC summit at the end of October.

To be sure, European Union ''won't be a United States of Europe,'' cautions a senior German diplomat; it will be a much looser confederation. It won't have powers of taxation or military defense beyond the voluntary contributions of its members at any point. Governmental power will be as decentralized as possible. And this union will become reality more slowly than heads of government expected when they signed the Maastricht Treaty.

''We lost three to five years on August 1,'' admits the diplomat, referring to the collapse then of the narrow-band fixed currency rates of the European Monetary System. But that collapse, far from discouraging the hard core of European integrationists -- especially the enthusiastic Germans and Dutch and the practical French, who in the end always conclude that they must deal with the feared Germans by cooperating more closely with them in Europe -- convinced them that half-way measures are inadequate. They must press ahead with real currency union by the end of the century, they concluded, whether or not the British come along.

''The EC has always gone forward in lurches, two steps forward, one step back,'' sums up the senior EC civil servant. ''Maastricht was probably three steps forward, one and a half steps back.''

Elizabeth Pond is a free-lance journalist based in Bonn.

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