The Sterling Crisis: Future of Europe in the balance: Fate of the Maastricht treaty

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The Independent Online
The Maastricht treaty in its present form is probably now dead whether or not it is ratified by France on Sunday. The politics and economics of European integration have become entwined into a downward spiral, as fears that the treaty will not be agreed drag down financial markets and economic instability undermines citizens' confidence throughout the European Community. What remains to be seen is what the Twelve can pull out of the crisis.

The truth is that the Maastricht treaty has become rather irrelevant. The core of the treaty was the ambitious plan to unite Europe's currencies by the end of the century. For one group of currencies, a single currency is virtually established anyway: it is called the German mark and it is managed from Frankfurt. Those countries that survived yesterday's nuclear explosion on the foreign exchanges in good health - Belgium, Netherlands, and France - are now tied even more irrevocably to the Bundesbank.

For the rest of the EC's countries, the outlook is poor. The pound dropped out of the EMS altogether, to return when the markets have settled; the lira has already devalued once, and seemed set to do so again last night; the peseta also looked very wobbly. These currencies, along with those of Ireland, Portugal and Greece, effectively form a second tier to the system.

Europe still has to weather Sunday's French referendum, which has become a vote of confidence on the French government as well as on Europe. Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, is to meet his colleagues in New York on Monday for an emergency discussion. Since Britain holds the presidency of the EC, he will play a key role in picking up the pieces. There is also likely to be a special summit of EC leaders. But nothing will be resolved until after the Edinburgh summit in December.

If France votes 'no', that clears the air: the treaty is finished. A weak 'yes' would not be sufficient to push the treaty through, and would trigger immediate demands in Britain and Germany for a referendum. Even a strong 'yes' - the most unlikely of the scenarios picked out by the government - would not end the problem. Getting Maastricht through the House of Commons now will be a pitched battle.

In any case, there is the Danish problem. It has become increasingly clear that Denmark will not be content with a protocol or declaration that clarifies the treaty, as Britain had hoped. The Danish Social Democrats, in opposition but the largest single party, have said they want key areas of the treaty changed.

After stabilising the situation with a 'pause for thought', the EC will have to consider what can be salvaged. Monetary union was the centrepiece of the treaty, and for the weaker currencies of Europe this looks like a very distant prospect. 'There is a real risk that European economic co-ordination and the EMS (European Monetary System) will collapse,' said Susie Symes, director of the European programme at the Royal Institute for International Affairs. 'It's a question of a total lack of confidence.'

The two other areas of the treaty were less well-thought out, and are less pivotal to the treaty, than European Monetary Union (EMU). Common foreign and security policy follows on from the present practice of European Policy Co- operation (EPC). Common interior and justice policy centres largely on border controls, police matters and immigration.

Burying the treaty will enrage some of the EC member states that pressed for it. The treaty's conception was mainly the work of France and Germany. Theo Waigel, the German Finance Minister, has made clear that he wants EMU to continue; but the Bundesbank, through its actions, has shown that a single currency is a long way away for the weaker currencies, and there already, in practice, for the stronger ones.

If Maastricht is dead then the consequences for other policy areas could be grim. Enlargement is one of Britain's key priorities, bringing in new members - Sweden, Finland, Austria and Switzerland are at the head of the queue. But the EC's Lisbon summit agreed that negotiations could not proceed until after Maastricht was ratified and the Community's finances have been agreed.

The completion of the single market will also be held up, though British officials believe it can still go ahead.

Renegotiation will be virtually impossible with the government of virtually every EC country under grave pressure, with several on the verge of collapse. France is the most obvious case; rejection of the Maastricht treaty could cripple Francois Mitterrand. The German government is also under heavy fire. Italy faces a severe crisis.

The death of Maastricht could mean the end of the hopes of the so-called 'cohesion' countries - Spain, Ireland and Greece. They were due for large cash injections to help upgrade their economies. But they would also lose the psychological support that plans for EMU gave to government economic reforms. It includes criteria that make governments trim public spending and keep inflation down.

On the EC's northern flank, things look even worse. Sweden and Finland had both been counting on beginning talks early next year on entering the EC, but these now look likely to be postponed, perhaps indefinitely. 'We may have two sets of talks going on, one on widening the EC and the other on deepening,' said a Scandinavian diplomat yesterday.

(Photograph omitted)

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