Leading Article: Not as bad as all that

Click to follow
THE EUROPEAN summit in Edinburgh next week cannot resolve the deep crisis in the Community, but it now looks set to achieve enough agreement to enable the Community to move on to the next round of issues. Britain has been much criticised for its conduct of the presidency over the past six months. Although its diplomats are highly praised, their political masters are said to have lacked the neutrality that is proper to the presidency, and to have fought instead for British interests and British views, particularly on the budget, which is now the subject of bitter disputes with Spain.

Doubtless some of these criticisms are justified. Britain still lacks the habits of coalition building that come more easily to countries with proportional representation. Its domestic divisions have also put limits on the positions it can take. But, considering the problems that have rained down on the Community, and the domestic political strains under which John Major has laboured, Britain has probably done better than most countries would have done.

Look at the record. A clever fudge of the Maastricht treaty has been drafted to keep Denmark on board, although it must still be agreed and then tested on the Danish people. (Germany's first reaction to the Danish referendum, it will be recalled, was to forge ahead regardless.) After much arm-twisting, the Gatt agreement is on track and has a fair chance of surviving French objections. This was probably the single most important issue of the presidency. If France had been in the chair, the story would have been different.

Preparations for negotiations on enlargement have made good progress, and the talks themselves may no longer need to wait for Maastricht to be ratified. Subsidiarity has been placed firmly on the agenda, although nobody agrees on what it means. Altogether, a surprising amount has been achieved. Mr Major may lack vision and eloquence, but he is good at brokering agreements on stubborn issues. That skill has helped to compensate for his domestic weakness and will stand him in good stead at Edinburgh.

A base has therefore been created, admittedly wobbly, for tackling the formidable tasks that lie ahead. The three main ones are the budget, enlargement and the Balkans. All are linked in that they go to the heart of the Community's identity crisis and cannot be solved without a clearer definition of what the Community is to become.

Is the budget's job to support French farmers and dubious projects designed simply to attract funds, or is it to redistribute wealth from rich to poor? The present messy mixture of improvised measures requires radical reform. Is enlargement just a matter of negotiating with the Efta countries, or of moving rapidly to embrace former Communist states? If the more limited view is taken, 'Europe' will soon lose all meaning and the chance will have been lost to consolidate democracy on the Community's now artificial borders. Yet real enlargement will mean inventing new forms of membership, because there is no time to wait for full membership. Size alone will then force the Community to embark on deep reform of its institutions. Better to start now.

Also pressing hard for attention is the question of whether the Community's long- term interests might not be better served by transferring money to eastern rather than southern Europe - which brings us back to the budget. As for the Balkans, they force the Community to ask itself whether it has anything useful to say about its own security. The answer at the moment is a bleak no, which means that relations with the United States must take higher priority.

The Community is on trial. Although the Maastricht treaty will probably be pushed through by determined governments, it is already felt to be anachronistic, and popular support for it is weak. The results will be more modest than its drafters envisaged. Monetary union is retreating to the far horizon, and more and more members are seeking opt-outs of various types, or saying, as Britain is doing, that they will simply ignore directives that do not suit them. Prospective members are also having doubts. If the Swiss vote against the European Economic Area on Sunday, the doubts will increase. East Europeans, too, will become increasingly disillusioned if the Community fails to meet their expectations. The danger of declining relevance is real. If it is to be averted, the Community must not just patch up its wounds but take a searching look at the fundamental reasons for its existence and examine what it must do to justify them.