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Scary German plan would force EU back to basics: Debate has renewed old tensions at the heart of Europe, writes Sarah Lambert in Brussels

HOW could a harmless-sounding German discussion paper ignite such a furious row about the future of the European Union? When John Major rises to speak in the Netherlands today, he may become the first British Prime Minister to devote a whole speech to rebutting a series of ideas floated (with no official status) by a political party in another country.

The German Christian Democrat document, published last week, is indeed a scary thing: it is scary because it states, with unusual honesty and clarity, the philosophical and political dilemmas confronting the EU in the remainder of this century.

Put at its simplest, the EU faces a destructive collision between two of the ideas at the heart of the original Common Market treaty: that all democratic European nations should be encouraged to join the club; and that member states should move inexorably towards some form of ill-defined economic and political union.

In other words, the CDU paper tries to square the circle ignored by the Maastricht treaty: how can the EU at once be 'widened' to embrace the Nordic and former Warsaw Pact countries; and institutionally 'deepened' to prevent the extraordinarily ambitious, already unwieldy, superstructure collapsing under its own weight.

The German paper - reflections on European policy - may not be official government thinking but it represents the first intelligent, coherent and thorough-going analysis by a member state of the problems facing Europe as it prepares to welcome four new members and tackle a new range of problems thrown up by the end of the Cold War and a period of prolonged economic recession.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl's party (not yet Kohl himself) has suggested a solution, which both preserves and moderates the federalist impulse in the Treaty of Rome: it proposes that five 'core' member states, Germany, France and the Benelux trio, should proceed at all speed to fuller economic and political union, including a single currency; other existing and future member states, Britain included, should move at slower speed, joining up to the core economic and political policies when they feel able to do so.

In a sense this is an act of nostalgia: it is a wish to return to the heady days of 1957 when the Six struck out on their own, confident that the churlish British and others would be persuaded to follow, as of course they did. Small wonder that the Italians are so wounded at being excluded from the advance party this time.

The German ideas are suspiciously similar to French proposals, first floated several weeks ago, for three concentric 'bands' of EU states. They are also misleadingly reminiscent of John Major's preferred Euro-future, 'a multi- speed, multi-faceted' EU (of which we will hear more today). The Major government believes the EU should allow its nations to move at different speeds, according to national priorities and prejudices, but it hates the idea of a Britain permanently at the margins. It wants to establish the principle that some pupils can be in the top class in some subjects and in the remedial class in others.

This is, essentially, also an act of nostalgia: a return to attitudes which prevented Britain joining the Common Market in the 1950s; a belief that, even now, the EU can be reshaped along the looser, less institutional lines, the kind of Super-Efta, which Britain would always have preferred. This is almost certainly unworkable. Could a country be the brand leader in defence policy, while at the same time opting out of the economic union that would fund it?

The European Union now has a political and economic clout that makes it impossible for it to operate merely as a glorified free-trade zone. With economic ability comes political responsibility, the argument runs. Maastricht, even with a British opt-out, wrote the goal of economic and monetary union into European politics. Political union is necessary to direct economic union, social cohesion - the attempt to iron out the grossest socio-economic differences - is the glue that sticks these two things together.

But the German ideas are probably equally unworkable. A return to a Europe dominated by its founding members is no longer possible: history has moved on.

The parameters for the debate have now been set; it is clear that the 1996 review of Maastricht cannot be a mere tinkering with the system, once favoured by Britain, but must embrace the need for wholesale reform.