Leading Article: Europe in French hands

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DOES it matter which way the French vote tomorrow? Given the havoc of the past few days, the ill-feeling it has engendered, the rising tide of opposition to Maastricht in Britain and Germany, and the absence of any sign of repentance among the Danes, can the treaty be saved even by a narrow French yes? The answer is in doubt. Maastricht is in deep trouble whatever the result. Yet the conditions under which repair work begins will be defined by the French vote.

Even a narrow yes would create a context in which the British presidency could establish an agenda aimed at getting the Danes back on board next year, re-educating public opinion in wavering member states, and eventually achieving full ratification of the treaty. It would be an uphill task with no guarantee of success, but no imaginable alternative is any better. The events of this week have strengthened the arguments for monetary union. If EMU had been in place, the strains of German unification could have been managed with more regard for the interests of fellow members and there would have been no windfall profits for the currency speculators. By rights there ought now to be pressure to abandon the slow Maastricht timetable, with its dangerously vulnerable intermediate phases, in order to accelerate towards monetary union. That is unlikely to happen, but there must at least be no giving in to fatalism.

The temptation to do so will be greater if the French vote no. Unless salvage work is rapid and effective, the Community will falter. Monetary union will recede into the distance. Enlargement will become more difficult to negotiate because the future shape of the Community will be uncertain. A Gatt agreement will move out of reach because the French will become even more resistant to reforming the Common Agricultural Policy. Industries will postpone investment decisions in Europe or look elsewhere. Currency speculation will continue. Protectionism will increase. Germany may be drawn eastward. If things go really badly, Jacques Attali's warning against the 'tribalisation of the Continent' will be vindicated.

There is, however, no need for the worst to happen. As John Major pointed out yesterday, there are good things in the treaty that need to be saved. Many can be implemented without ratification. These include negotiations on enlargement, increased inter-governmental co-operation on foreign and security policies and immigration, and implementation of the single market at the start of next year, an event once regarded as of major significance but now seemingly half-forgotten. Not until the final stages of monetary union are reached, if they ever are, will a new treaty become necessary to set up the required institutions. In the meantime, the fault lines mentioned by Mr Major yesterday need to be addressed before Britain can rejoin the exchange rate mechanism.

For Britain, a pause and a setback for the more idealistic federalists can be turned to advantage, not only among domestic critics but also in the rest of the Community. Some of the fears aroused by Maastricht could be allayed by purveying a more pragmatic view of Europe, emphasising sovereignty, subsidiarity and commercial benefit. It might even become possible to sell monetary union as no more than an essential, practical condition for an effective single market, which is what it is. The opportunity could also be taken to work harder and more publicly on new structures for the Community that would enable it to extend its membership to central and eastern Europe. That remains an issue that has not yet had the priority it deserves.

Much of the confusion that now surrounds the whole European enterprise is the result of having rushed through the Maastricht negotiations at a time when the entire shape of Europe was being transformed by the collapse of Communism. The desire to deepen integration was understandable in the circumstances, but public opinion was left far behind, unable to see clearly in what direction it was being led, and confused by the falling away of the certainties of the Cold War. Whichever way the French vote, that deficit in communication between governments and people will have to be made up. European integration is, if anything, even more necessary than it was during the Cold War, but it needs new thinking, new structures and the fresh impulse that it can receive only from broad popular support. Until governments can find that support, they will be unable to do more than hobble forward at the mercy of small swings of opinion that may often be related to other issues.