Leading Article: A lost chance for Britain

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THE PITY of it] Just when events in the European Community are retrospectively justifying past British doubts about monetary union, the Conservative Party's spectacular divisions over Europe render the Government virtually powerless to push its ideas for the EC's development. The Government never had any faith in the exchange rate mechanism (ERM) as the 'glide path' to economic and monetary union (EMU), the grand project that lay at the heart of the Maastricht treaty. Now the ERM has been loosened to the point of near-meaninglessness, and the Maastricht timetable for EMU looks impossible. The treaty scraped through the Commons, but its heart no longer beats.

Yet Europe's future, like the treaty, was always about much more than EMU. It is about the EC's enlargement, and the progressive inclusion of the newly democratic countries of Eastern Europe. It is about achieving the right balance between the European Commission, the European Parliament and the member states. It is about a closer alignment of foreign and security policy, greater co-operation in fighting crime and controlling immigration. It is about making good the 'democratic deficit' left by the transfer of power from national parliaments to unelected officials. Increasingly, it is about ensuring that Europe maintains its global competitiveness.

On all these themes the British are, by experience and temperament, well placed to provide wisdom, even leadership. Sadly, John Major's long struggle with the 'bastards' within his own party, and his apparent readiness to go on propitiating them, have destroyed his credibility across the Channel.

The challenge to EC leaders will now be to fill the political vacuum left by the ERM's virtual demise. It was for good reasons that the Maastricht treaty focused on EMU. The fear was, and very much remains, that without economic convergence and monetary stability, the single market would be progressively undermined. If the goal of EMU is lost to sight, the political will to resist the forces of protectionism could be fatally weakened. Some of the old barriers to trade, painfully eliminated in long negotiations, may creep back into the internal market. The French, feeling betrayed by the Bundesbank and by Anglo-Saxon currency dealers, may well seek to scupper the emerging Gatt deal to liberalise world trade.

The next few months of floating currencies will reveal whether the EC is capable of sustaining the single market and of staving off calls for protectionism from member states with a very different trading tradition from, say, those of Britain, the Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, Germany. The French may calculate that as Germany's manufactured exports become less and less competitive and unemployment mounts, German enthusiasm for free trade will wane - and that 1994 will see a Grand Coalition government in Bonn much more sympathetic to the French outlook. Should that happen, the EC is likely to be outpaced by the other two giant trading blocks: the North American Free Trade Agreement and Japan with East Asia.

In the short term, the return of virtually free-floating EC currencies is expected to boost recovery from the economic recession that has been deepening on the Continent. But before long the dangers it poses will become evident, and pressure will mount for a re-narrowing of fluctuation margins. Britain should be at the heart of discussions of the new order. But unless the Conservative Party as a whole can come to terms with the realities of the modern world, there is no chance of this country's ministers playing that role.