Leading Article: A problem at Europe's heart

TO SAY, as the Prime Minister did yesterday, 'Without the consent of all 12 member states, the Maastricht treaty cannot proceed. It would be dead', is to do no more than make a statement of fact, as John Major himself pointed out. The crucial thing about his opening address to the Conference of the UK Presidency is that it constituted his strongest rebuttal yet of those who are sceptical about further European integration, and of those who suggest that the Government might secretly welcome the rejection by France of the Maastricht treaty.

It also reaffirmed the Prime Minister's commitment to Britain's role at the heart of an evolving Europe, which would continue to develop, whether or not the French vote 'No' on 20 September. But the Prime Minister put his own, strongly anti-federal gloss on the exercise when he quoted the opening words of the Treaty of Rome. At the core of this was, he claimed, the notion of democratic consent. Where the treaty talked of 'an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe', Mr Major argued that the phrase meant 'not federation but conciliation and consent'. This condition would, in turn, be achieved through intergovernmental co-operation and agreement - not necessarily within the framework of European law.

If Europe's present democratic deficit is genuinely to be met in this manner, rather than through the creation of more powerful, democratic European institutions, the intergovernmental process will need much greater transparency, and the parliaments of the member states will have to improve their methods of oversight. So far none of them has proved adequate to the task. This has added to the sense of distance and alienation that many people have come to feel about the EC. Mr Major could with profit have addressed the failure of Maastricht to provide for democratic control over national politicians, and over the central bureaucracy.

But the great omission from Mr Major's speech was any reference to the severe and growing German crisis, which is a direct result of the shock of unification, its subsequent mishandling and the inadequate nature of German political leadership. From these failures stem the subsequent troubles of the Maastricht process. Helmut Kohl, confronted with the prospect of unification, was shortsighted and selfish. The economic consequences of the decision to exchange one Deutschmark for one Ostmark and to bring wages in the new Lander into line with those in western Germany by the mid-Nineties, have been catastrophic in eastern Germany. But the main European economies are already so closely coupled, with or without Maastricht, that the rest of Europe is also condemned to take the strain.

Commenting at the weekend on the continuing racist violence in Germany, Helmut Schmidt, the former Social Democratic Chancellor, made comparison with both the anti-Jewish Kristallnacht in 1938 (which was silly) and with the situation of 'mass unemployment and the people's hopelessness' in 1933 (which was disturbingly apt). But the fact that a statesman of Mr Schmidt's seniority could talk in alarmist terms added historic fears to the economic anger driving many of the French 'No' campaigners.

There is a paradox here. Germany, unstable and unpredictable, looking east as well west, is a threat to Maastricht because it appears an unattractive partner. Yet, for all the strains, Maastricht provides the best framework for Europe to deal with the difficulties of a Germany increasingly preoccupied with its role in the east.