The horse throws off its rider

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The Independent Online
THE Maastricht treaty that Britain has just ratified is not merely dead but in an advanced state of decomposition. This condition is signalled to all our political and economic senses, not only by the collapse of the exchange rate mechanism - exquisitely timed by the fates to coincide with British ratification of Maastricht - but by the visible dissolution this week of the partnership that once drove on the federalist project, created Maastricht, held up its tottering progress towards ratification and strove in vain to avert its still-unacknowledged demise.

The partnership was made up of France and Germany - in that order - enthusiastically and influentially supported by the European Commission, especially under Jacques Delors. The enterprise was fuelled by German deference, working on French vanity and insecurity. The putative objective was a United States of Europe, under French leadership, seconded by a loyal and admiring Germany.

That scenario was always improbable, but it retained high plausibility for French wishful thinkers, as long as they got their regular fix of German deference. This was amply available from the end of the Second World War up to the unification of Germany. Since then, German deference has been in increasingly short supply. This was the week when it ran out.

I said earlier that this week saw 'the visible dissolution' of the Franco-German partnership. I meant this literally. Please take a look at the picture that accompanies this column, of the German Finance Minister, Theo Waigel, addressing the French Finance Minister, Edmond Alphandery, in Paris on Tuesday. Inspect this closely for any signs of German deference towards France. I believe this picture will be a 'must' for any future history of Franco-German relations in the second half of the 20th century because it dramatizes the end of an era.

In all the life of the separate existence of the Federal Republic of Germany, such a familiar gesture, coming from a high German official, addressing an equally high French one, would have been inconceivable. The disrespect manifest in the new German body language signals the end of the old French dream of the powerful German horse, responsive to his clever French rider. This week, the horse told the rider where to get off.

Jacques Delors, too, learnt this week that that horse is now feeling its oats. Mr Delors, who is suffering from sciatica, had told a television interviewer that it would be best if Bonn suspended its membership of the ERM for a few weeks or months. Mr Waigel was not amused. 'I don't see,' he said, 'how someone convalescing in France can claim to get involved in what is going on here in Brussels.'

At the same time an unnamed German official was quoted as saying that trying to run the ERM without the Deutschmark 'would be like trying to run the solar system without the sun'.

That is an interesting analogy and may well apply to the EC as well as the ERM. This has implicit significance for the many politicians and commentators who have been thinking of 'controlling' Germany in a united Europe. The planets may think they control the sun, but the sun knows otherwise. And it must be admitted that the German solar analogy has a lot more inherent credibility, whether attractive or not, than the old French equestrian one ever had. Pretences are collapsing, realities emerging. That was a major feature of the week.

Yet, though the pretences were collapsing under the weight of changing circumstances, the finance ministers were still trying to shore them up. The ERM collapsed, but was notionally preserved. This was done, according to an American reporter, 'not out of any enthusiasm but because they considered it the least unappealing option, because they were tired and because they had to do something before currency dealing started in Asia'.

No doubt for similar reasons, there was some dogged whistling in the Maastricht graveyard. Interestingly, the chief whistler for the federalist project was Mr Waigel. In a statement on German radio, he said: 'Germany still adheres to Maastricht, to its objectives and to the treaty. We adhere to the goal of economic and monetary union. The European Monetary System remains a central element for this. The fact remains: the second stage of Economic and Monetary Union begins on the first of January 1994.'

I don't think Mr Waigel can believe one of those improbable statements. If he did he would have treated his federalist allies with respect instead of contempt. But a German foreign minister will pay lip-service to these propositions as long as Helmut Kohl is Chancellor. When he is gone, even the lip-service will stop.

Then we had the French Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur: 'The EMS remains, the franc's value is maintained. . . .' This is breathtaking. You will remember that this is the same Mr Balladur who promised to resign if the franc was devalued. The essence of his present position is: 'If the franc were devalued, I would resign. I am not resigning. Donc the franc has not been devalued.' A fine example of late 20th century, post-Cartesian logic.

The only Finance Minister who showed some realism was Wim Kok of the Netherlands, who described the new ERM as 'a face-saving mechanism'. He added: 'A further process of rethinking is necessary.' That could be shortened to: 'A process of thinking is necessary.'

Britain could lead that process, if the Government would stop pretending that it really loved Maastricht and had faith in its future. Nobody in Europe believes this, any more than that Britain is 'at the centre of Europe'. If Britain were to say that the federalist enterprise is dead and therefore it is high time to bury it, millions of people in every European country, including many ex-federalists, would echo that call. Out of respect for past aspirations and professions, the federalist coffin could be swathed in Maastricht ratifications.

There remains the question of how the Community managed to get into the Maastricht mess, and how to avoid getting into any more such messes. At the bottom of the old one is that Franco-German folie a deux, now no more. But how could the other European countries have been taken in by the transparent nonsense of that 'horse and rider' scenario? Partly it was wishful thinking about 'controlling' Germany. Partly a childish fear of being 'left behind', as in the case of Britain. Partly it was the neurotic and incestuous atmosphere of all those late-night meetings in Brussels with the federalist mafia, always the most articulate in Euro-speak, and radiating a collective self-righteousness.

But the factor that is most open to correction immediately is the excess of power of the Commission. Theo Waigel's rebuff to Jacques Delors (who was speaking for the Commission) means that the Commission is being abandoned by its most powerful patron. Its other critics, including Britain, should take heart and move in.