It's not over until Chancellor Kohl gets hungry

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FOR MANY years, almost any supporter of European union attending the summits by which the Community advances has been contemptuous of the British. It goes with the territory, along with exquisitely- cut suits and a conversational style studded with words such as 'acquis'. This fashionable Brit-bashing has always been simplistic. At Edinburgh, it suddenly seems a trifle dangerous, too.

Let us not forget that the arrogance of the self-styled makers of the new Europe helped to nearly destroy Maastrich in the French and Danish referendums so recently. Now, to keep the Community moving forward, the summiteers have to cut the bluster and curb their ambition. The summit can be made a success, but a little humility all round will be needed.

To work out the likely shape of the deal, you need to ask first: if they fail, who loses most? The conventional answer is that Britain, as holder of the presidency, would be humiliated by the break-up of the summit. This belief provoked at least some of the menaces from the poorer countries: pay up or we'll spoil your party. In response, John Major has been trying to ram home the message that he will not do a deal at any cost.

But there will be a deal on Denmark. Failure to do a deal for a second Danish referendum would plunge Europe's governments into lengthy turmoil. The Maastricht process would be dead. Denmark would be emotionally outside the Community, though legally inside. For that reason, French and German threats about forging ahead as 11 (or 10) are simply illegal nonsense.

In the chaos that would follow such a breakdown, however, almost any outcome would be possible, including the evolution of a smaller Franco-German-Benelux federation. Those anti-Maastricht people who think there is an easy alternative, a tranquil continent of jolly free-traders, are dangerous fantasists.

So although it is true that without a Danish deal Mr Major would be humiliated, the issue is far greater than his or any other face. All the leaders in Edinburgh know that perfectly well. It was hardly surprising, then, as ministers and officials glided around the bars and hotels of the Scottish capital last night, that optimism about the compromise declaration to help the Danes was general, and high.

(All serious-minded readers will be delighted to know that the breakthrough apparently hinges on the substitution of the word 'thus' by the word 'accordingly' in the middle of a dense British text. Eminent jurist-linguists, including the brilliant Jean-Claude Piris of Brussels, had frowned on 'thus' and 'therefore' but Jean-Claude had gazed on 'accordingly' and pronounced it good. 'Accordingly' may save Edinburgh and, I suppose, the Continent. No, I am not making this up.)

That leaves the heart of the summit's business, the future financing of the Community. If the Edinburgh Council breaks up in a blue cloud of multilingual cursing, it will be because Britain, in alliance with Germany and Italy, cannot do a deal on the money with the poorer countries. The gap between the British proposals for extra funds and the Commission proposal (which the poorer countries already think too mean) is huge. The Spanish, in particular, are in a confrontational mood. This confrontation will not be worsened, if, as some ministers expect, Britain is ambushed by other countries who insist on discussing the British rebate.

This is where the Brit-bashing comes in. Spain, Portugal, Greece and Ireland (and probably France and the Commission too) assume that to achieve a summit success the British will back down. Because the poor old Brits need to prove their European credentials, they will pay up. Let us good Europeans sit back with our arms folded and wait as they sort themselves out. Here the danger lies and the foolishness starts.

A much higher amount of 'cohesion' (bribery) would be wasted on ill-thought- out projects. Unless Mr Major has taken leave of his senses, he will judge that even cheerful headlines can be bought too dearly. President or not, he has less to lose than the countries threatening to block the financing agreement. If the summit collapsed over that, Mr Major would simply tell the Commons the price had been too high. The Tory Europhobes would be delirious with pleasure and the rest of the party would be gruffly supportive (except, perhaps, the grumpy grandmother of federalism, Sir Edward Heath).

Failure on future financing would make enlargement of the Community far more difficult. But some, at least, of the Cabinet are sceptical about whether any of the Efta countries, bar Finland, now really want to join the Community. The brutal truth is that Mr Major thinks there would be worse things than a failure here about money.

Felipe Gonzalez, by contrast, would return to Madrid with no more money from the northern countries at all. The momentum of European union, which he prizes so highly, would have slowed. And what do we think would happen to the peseta? The final deal will happen nearer to British terms than Spanish ones.

There is always the possibility of cock- ups. But the great thing about summits is that they are short. Their artificially-created air of crisis breaks deadlocks, crunches discussion and forces compromise. As one experienced minister put it yesterday, there always comes a point when Chancellor Kohl gets hungry. There are deals waiting to be done. They will be.