LEADING ARTICLE: What if EMU can't fly?

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This week has been a bad week for European monetary union (EMU). Events in France have placed a large question mark over the ability of its government to achieve the Maastricht criteria by 1999. The Major- Dini talks suggested that 1999 was premature. Already there is much soul- searching in Germany. And two weeks ago Commissioner Neil Kinnock argued that 1999 was unlikely and unwise. The Kohl-Chirac meeting yesterday may have reiterated their determination to see the project through by the appointed date, but there is now more reason than ever before to doubt whether such a monetary union will happen before the end of the century.

What would this mean? The European Commission believes it would be a disaster, and many on the Continent share that view. They argue that a failure to move ahead with monetary union in 1999 would deal a body-blow to the whole European project. Their view of the process of European integration is akin to riding a bicycle: once you stop pedalling, you automatically fall off. There is nothing for it but to press on.

Is this view correct? If it is not, then a number of our partners are in danger of risking internal stability and medium-term prosperity for the sake of a chimera. To proceed towards a single currency according to a foolhardy or ultimately unattainable deadline could be an act of irresponsibility. Those countries unable easily to meet the terms of entry might take (as some believe is now happening in France) draconian action too quickly. The result might well be a wave of resentment towards both national and European political classes which would endanger the very European project that monetary union is designed to bolster and reinforce.

The truth, as felt by many pro-Europeans on this side of the Channel, is that the bicycle view is wrong. It underestimates the strength and durability of a union that is now nearly 40 years old. It also rests on the proposition that the next stage of integration can only consist of monetary union. This is surely wrong. The widening of the EU to include some of the nations of eastern Europe is, in itself, an act of great historical importance. This enlargement will require an extension of qualified majority voting, an enhanced role for the European Parliament and (long overdue) reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Also on the European agenda for 1996 is the pressure for more co-ordinated foreign and (apologies to Michael Portillo) defence policies. We cannot rely on America always to be there to bail us out, as in Bosnia.

Events in Paris this week remind us how impatient some of our partners are for further union. Perhaps they cannot be persuaded that a slippage in the timetable for EMU would be no great tragedy. But we would find it easier to sell this approach to them if our diplomacy were more concerned with exploring the other possibilities in Europe, and less obsessed with fighting off encroachments from Johnny Foreigner. We can, if necessary, live without EMU for a few more years, because there are lots of other important things to do.