Leading Article: Time for the real issues

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BRUISED but triumphant, John Major deserved his success at Edinburgh. He, too, has had an annus horribilis. At the start of the year he had been looking forward to presiding over a European Community marching under the banner of Maastricht towards ever closer union while opening its arms to queues of eager applicants. Instead, after Britain assumed the presidency in July, he found himself crippled by domestic weakness as the Community plunged into crisis, undermined by recession and rejected not only by a majority of Danes but also by large numbers of French, Germans, British and others. He would be lucky to limit the damage.

At Edinburgh he achieved more than that. The package of measures demonstrates that the Community still has the will and resilience to cope with its problems, most of which, admittedly, it creates for itself. Much credit must go to the negotiating skills of Mr Major and his team. They were well prepared, well organised and determined. But they would have achieved little if the other leaders had not gazed into the abyss of failure and decided to draw back. They all saw that if the credibility of the Community became too deeply damaged, the repercussions would go far beyond the technical issues at stake.

The compromises reached are realistic, although necessarily ambiguous. The Danish opt-outs, harmless in themselves, open the way towards multiple exceptions for others, particularly new members. The budgetary agreement, although it rightly denied Jacques Delors all he asked for, demonstrates the vulnerability of the richer members to blackmail and the unsatisfactory nature of the whole system. Radical reform is still needed. The agreement on subsidiarity will usefully subject the Commission to greater scrutiny and reassure sections of public opinion, but it is open to abuse by countries wishing to protect unequal competition. The boost for investment should make a modest contribution to countering recession.

What has emerged, however, is a subtly different Community, battered, chastened and very far from the 'glad, confident morning' that once inspired it. Wherever it is heading, it is certainly not towards early federalism. That should make it easier for Denmark and Britain to ratify the Maastricht treaty, although neither can be taken absolutely for granted, but it does not resolve the underlying issue of how the Community should reshape itself in its new environment.

While its politicians and officials have been indulging in the modern equivalent of debating how many angels can dance on a pin, the world around them has been in turmoil. Bosnia is screaming for attention. Russia is at one of the great turning points of its history. Eastern Europe could still slip back into deep trouble. A new administration is taking over in Washington. If ever there was a time for vision and statesmanship, this is it.

One of the main gains of the summit is that the decks should now be partly cleared of disputes that have been distracting attention from these issues. Ultimately, the future of the Community will be determined much less by the details of the texts it approves than by the manner in which it responds to the real problems of its citizens and the world around it. At Edinburgh, it bought itself time to re- adjust. If it does not use that time profitably, it will slowly become irrelevant.