The Vote of Confidence: EC partners mystified by Britain's behaviour: The View from Europe

THE ANTICS of the British government are a mystery to the UK's 11 other EC partners.

As Leon Brittan, Commissioner for external economic affairs, hailed yesterday's vote as 'good news for the UK and good news for the Community', others admitted confusion. 'I don't think I understand what is now going on. They vote for one thing and against another, the Government loses crucial votes but stays in power, the High Court is examining a constitutional point when Britain has no written constitution . . .', a senior EC diplomat complained yesterday.

Sir Leon spoke of John Major's 'ultimate courage' in 'staking his and his Government's career on getting Maastricht through' and predicting his actions 'will come to be seen in Europe not just as courageous but as truly statesmanlike'. But others suggested that the uncertainty reflected badly on Mr Major and the validity of his commitment to put Britain 'at the heart of Europe'.

A public refusal to comment for fear of upsetting political sensitivities contrasts with private confusion, bordering on frustration. 'Why did they take so long before getting the ratification procedure under way in the first place?' a Commission official said, although noting that Britain is not alone in having trouble selling the virtues of closer European union.

With the Maastricht treaty only narrowly approved in France after a referendum and in Denmark after two; stalled so long in Britain and subject to a ruling of the constitutional court in Germany, there is a growing sense of doom that the concept of 'ever-closer union' has been strangled at birth.

What began as the blueprint for European co-operation into the 21st century has become a political millstone. The timetable for implementing the second stage of monetary union in 1994 looks impossibly optimistic, and the credibility of the entire European venture increasingly shaky.

Writing in Le Figaro yesterday, the French observer Baudouin Bollaert commented: 'At the moment, any further delay in the timetable leads to a further 'unravelling' of the EC and favours the renationalisation of the Community's politics. Although some think this kind of crisis is the only way to get the Community going again, it will have devastating consequences on confidence that is so vital to renewed growth and new jobs.'

Indeed, in those countries that have traditionally dominated EC politics - France, Germany, Britain - the Maastricht treaty has hijacked the domestic political agenda.

The French government, in the slow build-up to presidential elections, is struggling to defend a strong franc in the teeth of record unemployment. Its stance in the current Gatt round of trade talks risks putting Paris at odds with all her EC partners, and that alone is enough to plunge the Community into renewed crisis.

Germany, as reflected in its press, becomes progressively more anti-Europe as the cost of unification bites harder. Italy, already in political turmoil, is fighting to combat the rise of separatist parties campaigning on an anti-Maastricht platform.

While Britain's behaviour confuses, Germany is seen by many as the more dangerous threat to the life of the Maastricht treaty. The Constitutional Court, asked by a one-time senior German EC official to consider the validity of the treaty, can make a variety of rulings, including outright rejection or a demand that the issue be put to a referendum.

Not even lukewarm approval could be interpreted as a ringing endorsement for the treaty's aspirations.

(Photograph omitted)