Leading Article: An unenthusiastic verdict

Click to follow
THE worst has been avoided. It was the French who first conceived the European Community; had they rejected the Maastricht treaty, hopes of closer co-operation within the Community would have received a brutal setback from which the EC might have taken many years to recover. The events of last week, leading to the suspension of the pound and lira from the exchange rate mechanism, had already gravely damaged prospects of progress towards economic and monetary union (EMU). The narrow result of yesterday's referendum by no means guarantees that the treaty will survive. The rescue work will be lengthy, the outcome uncertain. But at least it can now begin.

Francois Mitterrand cannot be considered to have won his gamble. He thought that a referendum would salvage his own and his government's reputation and divide the opposition. In the event, the campaign divided not just the opposition but also his own party, the country as a whole, and even families. It also badly damaged France's relations with Germany: fear of dominance by the neighbour across the Rhine was invoked by both camps. The 'oui' advocates saw Maastricht as a means of tying down the German Gulliver; the 'non' camp evoked the spectre of an EC run by their former invaders. The referendum also contributed to the unsettling of the money markets last week.

From the start, Mr Mitterrand must have known that a treaty encompassing so many and such divergent forms of co-operation was wholly unsuited to the simplicity of a one-question referendum. He should have known that his own popularity was bound to become a central issue. He must have suspected the state of the economy, the level of unemployment and the known discontent of the farmers would encourage a verdict hostile to the incumbent government. He ought to have known the campaign would provide a field day for the xenophobes of Jean le Pen's National Front. Less predictable, perhaps, was the emergence in the 'non' wing of pro-Europeans who felt that, given the overthrow of Communism and the crisis in Eastern Europe, Maastricht was the wrong treaty at the wrong time. Yet even though the French have narrowly endorsed it, Mr Mitterrand should resign. He has ample health grounds for doing so. A younger leader would be better placed to heal the wounds of the referendum campaign and help salvage, in whatever form, the best of Maastricht.

It now falls to the British Government, which holds the EC presidency until the end of the year, to put that task in hand, starting at next month's special summit meeting. A 'non' might have solved John Major's short-term problems with his party's right wing. But he believes the treaty represented a victory for Britain's vision of European integration - not least by incorporating the concept of subsidiarity and increasing the range of co-operation outside the EC's institutions.

France's great debate has had the salutary effect of proving beyond dispute that it is not only or mainly the British who resent anything that looks like gratuitous meddling by the European Commission in hallowed areas of national life. It also revealed widespread anxieties about some potential effects of the creation next year of the single market, such as an increase in immigration or drug trafficking. As for EMU, the events of the past few days have emphasised the desirability of a single currency and the dangers of prolonged transitional arrangements. A two- or three-speed Europe that takes greater account of the desire for EC membership of Eastern Europe's fledgling democracies seems not only likely but desirable - at least to British eyes.