Crisis, what crisis? Delors keeps the faith

Maastricht architect denies any blame for growing strains on EU ideal
IS THE European Union an idea whose time was past before it even arrived, a mirage born of post-war idealism? With tensions rising over the single European currency, and the breach already open over the Schengen treaty on abolishing border controls, French nuclear testing, and policy towards former Yugoslavia, it might seem so.

But could it have been killed by enthusiasm - the enthusiasm of the man who masterminded the Maastricht treaty and pressed for the introduction of a single currency before the governments and, more to the point, the people were ready?

The man in question, a certain Jacques Delors, bane of Margaret Thatcher's premiership and president until last December of the European Commission, bristles in the nicest possible way when the proposition is put to him. "No, no, absolutely not," he says. He is not even convinced that what is happening now can really be called a crisis.

"I recall," he said in an interview last week, "that during the 45 years of its existence, European construction has known only two periods of dynamism: 1957-63 and 1985-92. The other years we have known stagnation and even two deep crises: the one caused by General de Gaulle in 1963- 65, and the other by Mrs Thatcher between 1979 and 1984."

Current developments, crisis or not, he blames on a series of adverse events: the economic recession which came after a run of seven good years; two concerted attacks on the EMS by the currency markets in 1992 and 1993, which threatened the credibility of monetary union in public opinion, the failure to prevent the Yugoslav tragedy, and the difficulty of getting the Maastricht treaty ratified.

But were not the difficulties with Maastricht a warning that it was perhaps a treaty too far? Again he demurs. There were problems with the treaty, he concedes, but not because of monetary union. If anything, he thinks, that should have been spelt out more specifically.

The problems were with the political aspects - the calls for a common foreign and security policy. "I warned at the time," he says, "that the political dimensions were too vague and that we were trying to go too fast. But that was not my personal fault. I proposed that we should omit any reference to common foreign and security policy and speak more modestly of common action."

The real culprits for Europe's problems, he believes, are the national governments "who don't explain European problems to public opinion". After all, he says, "the European question has been a fact of daily life for everyone in Europe since the big progress made in 1992 with the Single European Act".

Worse, he maintains, national governments have made the EU into a scapegoat for their own problems. Whenever anyone asks how a particular difficulty has arisen, whether from the world at large, domestic developments, or European construction, they blame Europe.

Despite this, Mr Delors remains optimistic. Unlike many others, he believes that the single currency will be introduced in 1999 - though he says that applying the other parts of the Maastricht treaty will be more difficult. He sincerely believes that if a single currency had been in place since the 1970s, a series of international crises, including the oil shock and the 1990s recession in Europe, would not have happened.

There is, however, a point beyond which even Mr Delors will not go. He doubts the possibility of having a common European health system, or common social security arrangements. Each country's system and priorities, he argues, are so rooted in its traditions and culture, that it is not feasible, or even perhaps desirable, to unite them. And, contrary to what is often thought, especially in Britain, he denies that he is an out-and-out federalist who wants a "United States of Europe".

"I want a federation of sovereign states with the full application of subsidiarity [devolution of power to national level]," he says, adding slightly plaintively: " This is a lonely position, in the middle between the federalist idea and that of sovereign states."

So the EU may look as though it is in crisis, perhaps even on its last legs, but Mr Delors is far from sure, and certainly he has no regrets, laughing off the suggestion as mildly preposterous. He responds by instead listing the achievements of the EU (once the Common Market) before the "crisis". He presents each as if it was a hard-won scalp, including the Common Agricultural Policy and the single market.

In 1984, he insists, such plans were thought too ambitious. Now they are taken for granted. The possibility that these might unravel - and all because of discord over the single currency - is not even a speck on Jacques Delors's cloudless horizon.