The Sterling Crisis: Bonn plots its response to a French 'no': Counter-offensive to defend EC

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The Independent Online
SHOULD the French vote 'no' in the Maastricht referendum tomorrow, then only the swiftest, concerted, response by European leaders can avert disaster, the German government believes. The line adopted by John Major, the British Prime Minister, that even if Maastricht dies, the Community lives on with a large agenda still to be completed, is regarded privately in Bonn as perilously complacent.

There will be no time for stock-taking after the event, stress German officials, for the effects of a French 'no' vote would be so powerful that even aspects of European integration currently regarded as secure could be threatened.

In top-level contacts with the British and French, conducted with the utmost secrecy for fear that they might give the impression that Bonn is resigned to a 'no' vote, the Germans have been trying to agree a common strategy for a lightning counter-offensive in defence of Europe. Bonn wants a crisis meeting of European leaders to be called immediately, in an effort to calm nerves and set the damage-limitation in motion. Chancellor Helmut Kohl told a news conference at the end of a two-day visit to Italy: 'We will need an urgent European summit.' In Germany itself, Mr Kohl, calling off the planned first reading of the Maastricht treaty scheduled for 7 October, would address Parliament in Bonn, outlining what he considers to be the road ahead for the Community. A failure to seize the initiative immediately, warn Bonn officials, might provide the chance for the Euro-scepticism already prevalent in Germany to explode into a anti- Brussels backlash. An opinion poll published yesterday showed German public opinion towards Maastricht to be just as divided as in France: 46 per cent of respondents supported the treaties on European union; 41 per cent opposed them; and 13 per cent said they were undecided.

The key to the response lies in co-operation with London and Paris. The continuing war of words between the British and the German governments provoked by the recent European currency crisis is not making the emergency planning easy, however. But as the current EC president, with the powers to call meetings, the British are essential to Bonn's strategy. A rapid public demonstration of the continuing solidity of the Franco-German alliance, indispensable for any further progress in Europe, is the first priority, it is said in Bonn. The central message to be delivered, according to Bonn, is that European union remains the goal, but that, with Maastricht dead, other avenues must be used to reach it. The emphasis will be on keeping away from any grand schemes a la Maastricht, pursuing instead specific areas of integration, often at the bilateral level or among small groups of EC members. An example cited is that of the Franco-German Eurocorps in the defence and security field. To ensure that Europe does not go backwards - a risk Mr Kohl privately takes very seriously - opportunities for integration must be seized wherever they are, officials say, even if this means adopting the union a la carte traditionally favoured by the British instead of the across-the-board integration desired by the Germans.

The main victim of a 'no' vote, Mr Kohl realises, would be economic union, an event which will be met with a sigh of relief by the Bundesbank and much of the German population. The issue of giving up the Deutschmark for a common currency has already become so controversial in Germany that Mr Kohl says there is no prospect of reopening it before the general election here at the end of 1994.

But even with monetary union dead, Mr Kohl is said to be determined to avoid enlargement of the Community going ahead as if Maastricht had never existed. This would make it difficult to develop an EC of 15 or more into something other than a large free-trade area. Allied with the French, the Germans appear determined to avoid this happening.