Hard-core Europe, put forward by Germany a year ago and then quietly abandoned, is back with a vengeance. After President Jacques Chirac met Chancellor Helmut Kohl yesterday in the cosy German spa town of Baden- Baden, a letter the two countries have been writing together for months was finally posted to the governments of the 13 other EU members. Though much of it anodyne, it contained a warning aimed at Britain, proposing in effect to accelerate away from countries in the slow lane of integration.
"We consider it desirable and possible . . . to introduce in the [Maastricht] treaty a general clause allowing countries which have the will and the ability to develop among themselves strengthened co-operation within the common institutional framework of the union," the two leaders wrote. In plain language, that means that France and Germany are proposing to bypass the objections of countries more Euro-sceptic than themselves.
Chancellor Kohl warmed up for the 66th Franco-German summit meeting with an uncompromising speech to the Bundestag, urging "sustained effort" from countries wishing to enter European monetary union in 1999. For France, that means pursuing welfare cuts that have brought the unions into the streets, paralysing the country for the 14th day in succession. Mr Chirac might have been hoping yesterday's meeting would provide neighbourly reassurance and escape from the chaos of Paris. What he got was a stern call from the Germans not to veer from the narrow path of monetary rigour that has so inflamed passions on the other side of the Rhine.
The new uncompromising mood was in evidence during the press conference after last night's summit, when Mr Kohl brushed aside John Major's "chaos" theory for monetary union. "I have not abandoned the idea that our British friends . . . will participate," he said, describing Mr Major's understanding of the common currency as "false".
To qualify for monetary union by the set date, France needs to cut its budget deficit down to three per cent of GDP; a task which had seemed almost impossible even before the outbreak of hostilities between government and workers. Now the German public, the opposition and even senior figures in the Bonn government seem convinced Mr Chirac will not be able to pull it off, and Mr Kohl concedes that without France the project is a non- starter.
It is not just with Britain that Germany feels impatient. The gap between Paris and Bonn is perhaps the widest over the task of co-ordinating the fight against crime across the community. "A quick agreement on this question is not in sight," Mr Kohl conceded.
The main success story of the summit appeared to be in foreign and security policy. With France now playing a fuller role in Nato, German anxieties about French intentions have to a large extent been allayed, and the two countries are proposing that diplomacy and military matters throughout the EU should be under one roof.
But again, the document is short on specifics, though between the lines there is a hint that both now favour the appointment of a general secretary to represent the community at international forums. France wants that person to be Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president.
There was also some meeting of minds over the vexed question of qualified majority voting. Until recently, France was unwilling to weaken individual governments' right of veto over important community matters, a step the Germans say must be taken in order to streamline decision-making in the EU in anticipation of its eastward expansion. Germany and most other EU states wanted to introduce qualified majority voting for member governments, curtailing the power of a single capital to abort decisions. With the French on board, Britain's isolation on the issue is likely to be complete.
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