Leading Article: It's Europe or bust

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EUROPE is a sad, ugly, messy place at the moment, full of moral uncertainty, fears for the future and disputes over the past. Just when the European Community should be having its finest hour, as a victor of the Cold War and a principal actor in shaping a new world, it has collapsed into self-doubt. Now - this weekend - the crisis in the European Monetary System (EMS) is threatening to remove what until a year ago could have been regarded as one of its solider achievements. Yet the EMS is one of the causes of the present troubles as well as a victim. It has been imposing impossible costs on its members, principally because of high German interest rates. That is why there have been calls from inside and outside Europe to put it out of its misery now, before any further damage is done, and before more jobs are sacrificed at the altar of European unity.

But if the EMS dies, then what becomes of Europe's plans for economic convergence? If they too begin to turn brown and curl at the corners, other larger and more frightening questions will follow. Why are we on the European train in the first place? What is the point of the sacrifices and adjustments we have been asked to make? Why Europe?

After the Cold War ended, Europe was clearly headed for an identity crisis of some sort, since 1989 brought to an end a decade that had shaped its political and psychological reality. What was not expected was that this would explode into a fully fledged crisis of legitimacy. States all over the world co-

operate on issues like exchange rates, defence, the environment, trade and immigration because the borders that separate them are of declining usefulness. But the means of co-operation adopted here, and the fact that they were done at European level, were supposed to represent something grander. Europe was supposed to offer a wider prospect of community, a broader vision than the narrow nationalism that was so attractive in the 1930s, and one more open to the world than Communism. The idea was that prosperity would bring peace and stability.

Over the past two decades, Europe has had a rough ride in the world economy and it has tried to find ways to smooth it out. The EMS was one of these; the single market is another. Both are primarily liberal solutions, despite what Professor Alan Walters and the other right-wing critics of the system say, and only the freest of free marketeers and the littlest of Little Englanders (or Kleindeutsche) can pretend that the EMS, should it fail, needs no substitute. The European states are just too interdependent to pretend that they are independent.

So necessity - the need for European states to co-operate - is one argument for the European ideal. But Europe is also a desirable future, because, without it, it is hard to see how we can accommodate the states to the east. The core of the European idea has always been redemption: for those countries that came unsteadily out of the Second World War, or which lurched out of dictatorship, or, like Britain, saw it as a means of reversing economic decline. Now for a new generation of states, which have emerged from decades of domination by the Soviet Union, it is fulfilling the same function. Without economic and monetary stability to their west they are in trouble. They need Europe.

That Europe may not be the same one that was planned at Maastricht; and it may not be the one that Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman envisaged, just as the America that was reinvented after the Civil War bore scant relationship to the one laid out in Philadelphia in 1789. The idea of a single currency certainly needs to be rethought, its costs and benefits made clearer. But giving up that idea completely would only reinforce the tendency to fragmentation in the Community. Almost every country in Europe is now experiencing the consequences of Europe's crisis of legitimacy, with the emergence of movements which threaten the attachment to open markets and political liberalism that has so far characterised modern Europe. Without monetary co-operation, it is hard to see how other forms of co-operation will survive.

What is at stake in the EMS crisis is whether it is possible to build Europe without either locking the continent away from the pressures of the world economy, or abandoning it to the wild swings of the marketplace. The EMS was conceived as a half-way house. If an alternative cannot be found, and quickly, then we will slide towards protection and narrow definitions of self-interest. In such a world, Britain is no certain winner.