Leading Article: No quick fix for the EC

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The Independent Online
BOTH Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl left their meeting in Paris yesterday tight-lipped and grim. They had been brought there by the shock of the wafer-thin majority for the Maastricht treaty in Sunday's French referendum. Their meeting was overshadowed by further chaos on the money markets and the slide of the French franc.

President Mitterrand was faced with abandoning the strong franc policy that has been the cornerstone of France's economic and European strategy: a worse blow for him even than last week's effective devaluation of the pound for John Major. The foreign currency dealers seemed bent on proving that they had found a method of cracking the European exchange rate mechanism. Their depredations made the main goal of the Maastricht treaty, economic and monetary union, look even more distant than it had last week with the departure of sterling and the lira from the ERM. Even a major realignment might prove to be no more than a short-term fix.

After all these shocks, one thing is certain: the worst way to restore the Community's sense of purpose and direction is to pretend that nothing has changed. For EC ministers to suggest, as they did on Monday, that ratification of Maastricht should proceed full steam ahead is worse than short-sighted. It invites further disaster. Chancellor Kohl seemed to err in that direction in his brief statement after yesterday's meeting, though he did concede that the Community should be widened as well as deepened.

On Sunday the French demonstrated that public opinion cannot be taken for granted - even in the country that had virtually invented the EC. The Danes, late joiners and always jealous of their sovereignty, had led the way by voting no in June. In Britain and Germany there is a solid core of opposition. It is now up to all member states, led by the British presidency, to devise adjustments to the treaty that will make it more acceptable not just to the Danes but to public opinion across the Community. Since Danish objections broadly reflect those of other countries, what satisfies the Danes is likely to please a wide constituency in the other 11 member states. The task promises to be very difficult, both in political and legal terms. A treaty that has been signed cannot be amended or have binding protocols added without the new version being re-ratified by any country that has already completed the ratification process. A likelier approach is therefore to add one or more solemn declarations or agreements to the existing treaty.

There was little cheer from Denmark, where the Prime Minister, Poul Schluter, suggested that the necessary second referendum on an adjusted Maastricht treaty might not take place until next autumn. More democracy and openness in the EC's decision-taking featured high on the Danes' priorities, he indicated. The European Commission in Brussels formulates policies in secret meetings, and they are approved, amended or rejected by the Council of Ministers in no less secret meetings. Could all the horse-trading behind those decisions be carried out in public without destroying the credibility of both bodies?

It is not just the powers of the European Parliament that are deficient. In many ways the old version, in which ordinary MPs were nominated to Strasbourg on a dual mandate, more truly reflected public opinion. Ways must be found of rooting today's peripatetic MEPs more firmly in national life - but without offending the delicate sensibilities of MPs. The answers found to solve Denmark's problems should help to calm down Mr Major's own anti-Brussels dissidents. He has cause to be grateful for the Danes' negative verdict on 2 June.