EC looks for Christmas returns: The Commission is trying to build up steam to keep ideals of European union on course

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The Independent Online
IT IS with some trepidation that Brussels officials return from holiday today. Closer European co-operation remains a fragile concept and they have a scant three months to convince governments and their electorates of its worth.

The scale of the task was summed up by the European Commission's Vice-President, Karel van Miert. 'We are living dangerously these days. Like some currencies, the Commission is just floating and there is still a danger that previous achievements will be undone,' he said.

And European Community President Jacques Delors said yesterday that the building of a united Europe by 'little steps' has reached its limits. 'If we go on like this, there will never be a single European currency.'

He called on the heads of government of the 12 EC member states to make a concerted effort to rejuvenate the integration process and turn Europe into a 'political community'.

Between now and Christmas, the Commission will try to build up a new head of steam for the 'ever-closer union' envisaged by the Maastricht treaty. It must attack on two fronts. Politically it has to keep coming up with initiatives that demonstrate the wisdom of acting together for the common good. Economically, if there is to be monetary union at all, it must ensure that the plans to move to at least stage two - that of the creation of an embryonic European central bank - are on schedule for next year.

Beyond this, it must establish a framework for dealing with mass unemployment. Mr Delors, who has said he will stand down next year, has made this a personal crusade. On Wednesday he is to conduct the first internal debate to pull together the work contributed by member governments, unions and policy think-tanks.

The problems of maintaining any kind of European consensus on the right way forward are manifested daily.

A crucial test will be a special meeting on 20 September to try to resolve the stalled Gatt round. France complains that a deal on agriculture struck with the US is unfair and hopes to recruit Germany to its point of view, while the rest of Europe has made it clear it expects Bonn to muscle Paris into line.

But can the EC still rely on Bonn to demonstrate leadership? Or, as the currency crisis of last month suggested, is Germany more concerned with domestic policy?

Chancellor Helmut Kohl has called for a special EC summit at the end of October, if his colleagues agree, to relaunch Maastricht. Germany is the only EC member that has not yet ratified the treaty. Belgium, which holds the EC presidency, has suggested that this would be the time to draw up blueprints for the embryonic European central bank. Germany has said the bank can be established anywhere, as long as it is in Germany. Not everyone else, Britain in particular, agrees.

And while governments battle, the new flexible European exchange rate mechanism remains to a certain extent beyond control. Although currencies would appear to have weathered the crisis, hopes that the Bundesbank will help pull Europe out of recession by reducing interest rates, making it cheaper to borrow money and reinvest in recovery, were last week again dashed.

Even Europe's most enthusiastic EC members now question the wisdom of limiting their own room for economic manoeuvre by linking their currencies to the mark.

The Commission has to convince the Twelve it is still worth acting together, even if that means compromising the national interest. The creation of stage two of monetary union on 1 January 1994 is a watershed by which progress will be judged. 'It's hard to predict what could happen; it could go either way,' said Mr van Miert. Christmas cannot come soon enough.