Leading Article: No cures in Birmingham

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The Independent Online
TODAY's special European summit in Birmingham was supposed to put the European bicycle back on the road. The assumption was that it had merely been blown off temporarily by gusty weather. The crisis in the exchange rate mechanism, followed by France's precarious approval of the Maastricht treaty, were thought to call for relatively minor repairs. If the alleged fault lines in the ERM could be patched over and the Danes and British placated with declarations on subsidiarity, the Community could start pedalling again towards closer union.

In reality, the bicycle is still on its side with its wheels spinning. Birmingham will not get it going again. The Community is in serious trouble, as unsure of where it should be heading as of the mechanisms required to get there. Debate over the Maastricht treaty has shown up deep splits in public opinion and wide gaps between voters and governments in many member countries.

In this respect at least, Britain is at the heart of Europe. Not only the Danes and the French, but also the Germans are struggling with doubts. Opinion polls in Germany reveal massive opposition to abandoning the mark and rising scepticism about how much Germany really benefits from membership of the Community. The pressure recently became so great that the government felt obliged to create its own opt-out clause by announcing that the Bundestag could veto currency union. So much for Maastricht. Helmut Kohl's personal commitment is firm, but his authority is steadily diminishing.

Doubtless he and others will rally round John Major in Birmingham with words designed to placate the British Europhobes and smooth the passage of the treaty through the House of Commons. There will be compromises, fudges and protestation of unity. There are, however, no signs of agreement on issues of substance. Monetary union will be quietly left aside. Open debate, towards which the British wanted to take some token steps, has already been rejected by the others. No progress will be made on the Gatt round of international trade talks.

Subsidiarity, which was supposed to provide the key to public approval of Maastricht, means so many different things to different people that it seems merely to contribute to the confusion. German proposals for drastically cutting back the power of the Commission have worried smaller countries, which fear that power would then shift to the larger governments. Even Britain, ostensibly the champion of subsidiarity, has gone slightly pale, fearing, among other things, that a weak Commission would become less able to defend industrial competition policy.

These disagreements are symptoms of the deeper malaise afflicting the Community. The collapse of Communism and the unification of Germany have destroyed many of the assumptions on which the EC was built. Recession and weak government have sapped its ability to adjust. The vacuum is being filled by reassertions of national interests. Thus, even if the Maastricht treaty can be pushed through every national legislature, the conviction behind it will have gone, and pressing problems such as enlargement, immigration and reform of Community institutions will still await attention. The best that Birmingham can achieve is a more promising agenda for the Edinburgh summit in December.

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