A Europe of nations, or a Europe of bureaucrats?

March 13, 1997|By William Pfaff

LONDON -- It's been a loss for Europe that Britain's debate on monetary union and the reform of European institutions has been so hysterical. The British have important points to make, which need to be debated in the rest of Europe, but these have been lost in the ambient demagogy.

The pace of the British debate has been set by what the pro-Europeans like to call the ''foreign-owned press'' -- the papers owned by Rupert Murdoch, the Australian who defected to America on advice of accountants, and by Canada's Conrad Black. These include the biggest-selling London tabloids as well as The Times, of august but faded reputation, and the excellent daily and Sunday Telegraphs.

They produce one after another story of bureaucratic horror in Brussels, and of alleged invasions of national sovereignty largely unremarked elsewhere in Europe -- even in France, where chauvinism was invented. The result has been that no one abroad pays attention to the serious things some British have been trying to say.

As the Conservative government of John Major, suffering its thousand wounds, staggers toward apparent obliteration in the forthcoming parliamentary election, officials in Brussels, Bonn and Paris have been waiting for a new and pro-European Labor government in London.

Just how pro-European that government will be must be questioned. It will be rational in its responses to reality, which the Tory party has ceased to be on this issue, but it will ask many of the same questions some Tories have asked, since they are good questions.

The Conservative foreign secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, has made a useful contribution toward enlightening the debate outside Britain with a recent tour of several capitals, telling the foreign public why many Britons have reservations about the present course of European reform.

He was in Sweden, Germany and France last month, asking for a public debate on the long-term significance of the Maastricht reform proposals for an enlarged European Union, currently undergoing somewhat panicky intergovernmental revision in preparation for the Amsterdam European summit in June.

The fundamental argument made by Mr. Rifkind is that the current reform momentum would shift power from broadly legitimate elected national institutions toward narrowly legitimate and mostly unelected international bodies.

He said that people today look to their national parliaments and governments ''to protect their liberties, to set their taxes and to take the great decisions of national security.'' People may not like the decisions actually taken, but they acknowledge the legitimacy of the institutions making the decisions. People know whom to blame and what to do about it.

European Union institutions are mostly appointive and do not enjoy this democratic legitimacy and popular acceptance. The European Parliament was created to remedy the ''democratic deficit'' but has failed to do so.

Mr. Rifkind says that ''it has yet to win the affection and confidence of European voters,'' as is demonstrated by the low turnout in European elections and the general lack of interest in what goes on in the parliament. European Parliament elections have proved in practice not only to be overshadowed by national elections, but to be dominated by national issues.

The legitimacy argument is a powerful one. The existing structure of European Union requires national governments to set policy for the Commission, the EU's executive arm of government. All important matters have to be settled between governments, and the parliaments that have a serious say about how Europe is governed remain the national parliaments.

The goal of Chancellor Helmut Kohl is to bind Germany into Europe at any cost. The British fear that this tends toward creation of what they call ''a superstate.'' London says that majority voting in the Commission (eliminating the national veto), together with the fiscal, budget and tax harmonization required by the common currency, may create arbitrary and undemocratic bonds.

Given the robust sense of national interest that still exists in the EU countries, it seems improbable that Europe would come to such a pass. But the unconsidered creation of arrangements now that may later be repudiated and abandoned would badly damage the European cause -- as well as the German.

This risk, I think, is widely felt and explains the uneasiness surrounding the current EU reform program. There is a sense that the Maastricht agenda is not the right one. The primordial political reality of Europe remains the nation-state, and good intentions or high ambition will not change that.

The British argue that this reality can only be acknowledged in an intimate partnership of nations, and that any attempt to create full union will fail. Europe's elites have yet really to answer this objection.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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