Germany planning relaunch of the EC: European leaders recognise that plans for speedy unity were over-ambitious

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FACED with the realisation that the Maastricht process is in tatters and the European Community is increasingly discredited in a continent beset by malaise, Germany is pressing ahead with plans to relaunch the EC with an autumn summit.

The proposal for a summit has raised the alarm in Britain and elsewhere that it would lead to grander designs for a speedy European union, despite the lack of popular support.

Western Europe's leaders are casting around in panic as the EC's ambitions become bogged down in economic crises and political bickering, and some fear that the intergovernmental conference, due in 1996 to review the Maastricht process towards European union, may start much earlier.

Germany has hinted that a proposed EC summit in October should get the ball rolling. The Maastricht treaty is near ratification by all 12, once Germany's constitutional courts give the all-clear to Bonn, but it is clear that plans for a speedy political and economic union were over-ambitious. Recent currency turmoil which nearly buried the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) has ensured that a single European currency will not appear soon. Many problems were anticipated by a group of academics and experts known as the European Constitutional Group, which has completed a proposed 'European Constitutional Settlement' to be launched in Frankfurt next month.

A pertinent finding, according to a draft copy of the report, is that the Maastricht treaty is unreadable and impenetrable and any revision must ensure that a future union constitution should be accessible to any interested reader. Neither the European Commission nor the 12 governments bothered to generate a public debate before launching the Maastricht process. The wreckage of the ERM and the enormous problems which ensued as member states ratified the treaty are now seen as the price of arrogantly racing ahead of public opinion.

Uninvited by the EC Commission or its member governments, the European Constitutional Group spent more than a year discussing its version of a constitutional settlement for the union, as a way of stimulating debate and influencing policy. Co- ordinated by Frank Vibert, chairman of the London-based European Policy Forum - a free-market but pro-EC body - the draft report makes refreshing reading after the turgid prose of Maastricht. 'It's become clear that the old model in which the EC is led by the Commission is elitist and lacks accountability,' said Mr Vibert this weekend.

The group believes that Europe's political leaders are vulnerable to two different pressures. One would be to succumb to the forces of destructive nationalism. The other would be to look for a 'solution' in the form of a centralised European constitutional structure. 'Europe needs to develop a decentralised form of union that can harness Europe's diverse identities,' the group says.

To head off a centralised union, the report sets out a number of proposals: the Maastricht treaty is flawed because it assumes that power flows downwards from a higher Community level to national governments.

A new constitution would make clear that 'power rests with the peoples of Europe' who act through their governments.

There should, the reports says, be checks and balances to prevent a runaway Commission taking advantage of political difficulties among an enlarged Community. This means establishing a European chamber of national MPs - alongside the European Parliament - to ensure that laws are made according to the rules.

The report calls for a stronger Council of Ministers to ensure that the body can function effectively when Austria, Finland, Sweden and Norway, and then east European countries, become members.

On monetary union, the report calls for an evolutionary approach, emphasising anti-inflation safeguards rather than rushing to create artificially a single new currency. 'It is already clear,' said Mr Vibert, 'that there will not be a single European currency in the 90s; the priorities for the EC have now got to be maintaining the single market, pressing on with enlargement and improving security and defence co-ordination.'