Crunch time for the continent as Euro-summit shuttle shuffles on

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THE Great Debate has started. Papers are circulating in London and other capitals; the appropriate cabinet commitees are studying options; ministers are touring the chancelleries, weighing alliances and testing opinions.

Take a deep breath before you engage in this debate: it is about Europe. Yes, again. While the backbenchers in the Conservative party are still protesting at the treachery of the Maastricht treaty, the caravan has moved on. The highlight of the European Union's Essen summit, which finished yesterday, was a discussion over dinner of the next steps in European integration, one that could explode the existing Union into a thousand warring fragements, or pull it together into a more cohesive unity.

The Essen summit was hardly a barnstormer. "It was very dull," said one British official in a rare moment of frankness. It cannot be said that the event itself lacked entertainment, however. Kenneth Clarke and David Davis, the Chancellor of the Exchequerand the Foreign Office Minister for Europe, slipped off into the twilight before dinner, in search of fun, pursued hotfoot by Fleet Street. Some of the diplomats involved had evidently also been exploring the new German cuisine. The usual b riefing for the British press was delivered by a journalist rather than an official, since "it was a bit late".

It is hard not to feel just a little sorry for the ministers condemned to the summit shuttle. Every year, just before Christmas, they traipse around the Continent for various meetings of the European family.. First the North Atlantic Council ministerial (Nato), then the grandly titled North Atlantic Co-operation Council, then the Contact Group (a select one this: invitation only for five countries), then the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, then the EU itself.

There have been moments of emotion and drama,. John Major and Albert Reynolds won a standing ovation by telling their EU colleagues about the prospects for peace in Northern Ireland. Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian foreign minister, stunned Nato by telling ministers on live television of his worries about the expansion of the alliance. Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, made a moving speech in Budapest to the OSCE pleading for unity on Bosnia.

But this great procession of tedium, table-rounds and texts has also been more than a little embarassing, with scant progress on the main subject that preocupies the policymakers: Bosnia. Representatives of several international bodies met on the sidelines of the OSCE summit. The meeting was, according to some present, a "shambles" with each talking at cross purposes.

This is the background against which the EU held a rather rambling discussion on Friday night of the future of Europe, in a house once owned by the Krupp family. Jacques Delors, about to make public his decision on whether he will return to national politics, led the debate, setting out the areas where change was required: the Common Agricultural Policy; the EU's large structural funds for poor nations and regions; decision-making and voting systems. It is a recipe for the comprehensive overhaul of an institution that is deeply in need of reform.

In two years time, the EU embarks again on a Maastricht-style exercise to rewrite the rules. The 1996 Intergovernmental Conference will focus, above all, on defence and security issues. But 1996 will also touch on every other painful issue: the powers ofthe European Parliament; the number of votes for big and small countries; the role of the European Commission; and spending. It is already looking like crunch time for Britain, with some sections of the Government softening up for a referendum and others insisting that this will only risk disaster.

It is also crunch time for the other EU nations. France is preparing for a presidential election where Europe will be a central issue. Germany wants further integration, but there is continuing scepticism about monetary union. The small countries will resist any weakening of their influence. Some will fight moves to form a European defence force; others will insist on it.

And it is crunch time for the international organisations that Europe has wrapped round itself like a protective blanket. It has become increasingly evident over the past 10 days that the war in Bosnia is reshaping the alliances and antagonisms of Europe, testing the organisations to breaking point and threatening to spill over into wider war.

Britsh 0fficials affected little interest in what the EU summit was going to achieve on Bosnia yesterday. But the fact is that the ugly combination of a weak Tory government, the entry of central Europe into the EU, the rumblings of Nato and instability to the north and south have made some sort of change inevitable.

The bad news for the Government is that it is starting now. Next September, the Spanish plan a special summit in Salamanca on reform. Next June, a "Reflection group" will start considering the IGC. By the time of the next European summit in June, papers will have to be polished off and positions set out. At least Mr Clarke and Mr Davis will have a slightly more elegant place to do their drinking: the French have decided to have their summit in Cannes.