Leading Article: Mitterrand gambles with Europe

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THE REVOLT against Maastricht threatens every practicable model of European unity and co-operation. To pretend otherwise is the first dishonesty of the treaty's opponents. They may claim, as Kenneth Baker did most recently, that a French rejection of the treaty would alter nothing of substance: the drive to the single market would continue, and inter-governmental co-operation would grow in all sorts of useful spheres. But the details of the French opposition campaign make it obvious that the whole idea of European co-operation for a common good is under attack there.

The French are clearly tempted to vote in the referendum against the personality and performance of President Francois Mitterrand. Yet the substantial grievances that the anti-Maastricht side exploit are not produced by an overweening federalism. Rather, they are the results of very necessary attempts to prepare for the introduction of a single market and clean up some of the ridiculous and damaging provisions of the Common Agricultural Policy: these are the very reforms that the Thatcherite right in this country pretends can be carried on by a properly subservient EC bureaucracy without any federal ambitions. If anyone in Brussels has done as much as Mr Mitterrand to tempt the French voters into rejecting Maastricht, it is not Jacques Delors but Lord Cockfield, architect of the less dramatic provisions of the single market.

A French 'no' to Maastricht would signal two things to every ambitious and intelligent politician in Europe: that there was a future to be made in attacking the 'technocrats' of Brussels; and that it was not fear of an uncertain federal future, but the hard work of implementing co-operation already achieved that had felled the proponents of Maastricht. So, though the treaties would remain, the politicians would be determined to interpret them in the most grudging way possible. Given the economic consequences of a retreat from the pain of a single market, political success in a Europe without Maastricht would be reserved for the politician who could most convincingly blame foreigners for everything.

Europe needs an impartial supranational bureaucracy to grind down the petty economic nationalisms of member states; but such a bureaucracy cannot function without political legitimation. Otherwise it might as well be an offshoot of the United Nations. That is the justification for the vast and cloudy phrases that are so dear to Mr Delors.

That said, the Maastricht treaty is not the ideal battleground on which to defend any wider vision. But history seldom provides a level playing field on which to decide matters of principle. The prime flaw of the treaty is that it fails to provide nearly enough political control over the central bureaucracy. The notion of subsidiarity must be given much greater rigour and some dramatically established common meanings before the Maastricht treaty can be wholeheartedly accepted. At the moment it can be depicted by the malevolent as an attempt to introduce centralism by stealth with none of the checks and balances that make federalism an attractive political idea.

These criticisms of the treaty have been made in the most practical fashion imaginable by the current Europe-wide wave of revulsion against a paternalistic Community where the man in the Berlaymont building knows best. This is not just some sort of indigestion to be ignored. It demonstrates something deeply wrong with the European project as so far understood. This lesson, however, has not been lost on any observer of the summer's dramas. Whatever the result of the French referendum, the Maastricht programme will be considerably revised and improved. But a no vote in France would turn every European country separately away from a future of European integration.

Principled opponents of the treaty have argued that it would produce a cold, closed and self-regarding Western Europe, shut off from all the turbulence to the east. And it is true that the present Community owes a duty to the European countries outside it, and must widen as well as deepen itself. But one of the greatest services the Community can provide for Eastern Europe is to show a model of stable supranational co-operation. It is a new way for nations to behave. It requires a certain willingness to dream. But nations need dreams; the only alternative to a European dream is the nightmare of right-wing nationalism, traditional in Western Europe until 1945 and still going strong in the Balkans.