Unlikely partners in Europe's mating dance

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WALTER BAGEHOT, the great Victorian writer, was a firm advocate of dullness in government. It was virtually a patriotic duty: 'Steady labour and dull material - wrinkles on the forehead and figures on the tongue - these are the English admiration . . . Dullness is our line, as cleverness is that of the French.' Yes, but there is a limit. Bagehot never had to deal with European constitution- mongering.

Now we have a French prime minister of truly English dullness, apparently keen to convince the world that Europe is on track for union, Maastricht-style, that there was no crisis this summer, that all is perfectly well, perfectly dull, exactly as it should be.

The autumn will see a long tussle between those who want to persevere with the Maastricht treaty, and those with the energy and imagination to understand that the vivid, unpredictable real world has broken through.

European union has been dull because it has been so abstractly unpolitical. It has been more about the wearisome mating dance and copulation of institutions than about free trade, jobs, defence, education or the environment. One of its besetting problems is that virtually everyone arguing about it speaks from inside the jostling parliaments, governments or bureaucracies. Commissioners, prime ministers and presidents, MEPs, national MPs . . . all are engaged in the Great Debate about their own status, their own power, even their own titles.

Hardly surprising, either, that when the voters were asked to give their verdict on Maastricht in referendums they sturdily turned to more interesting matters. Instead of admiring the institutional couplings achieved by the Continent's administrative elite, French voters insisted on discussing farm subsidies, Danes argued about welfare payments and the Irish cheered the cash gains from Europe.

This summer's currencies drama was only the latest jolt to the institution-obsessed agenda. The French and Danish referendums, and the first speculative assault of Black Wednesday were all serious warnings that the real world is closing in on the political architects. Then came mutual recriminations about the selfishness of German bankers and the arrogance of French policy-makers. The message, which flashed briefly but clearly across Europe, was that full political and economic union, Maastricht- style, is off. The gaps between French and German economic attitudes, and, indeed, between Gaullism and German federalism, are too wide.

Instead, there is an urgent need to find a more flexible, less ambitious European settlement. Unsurprisingly, the Germans have so far been more realistic about this than the French. Chancellor Kohl's acceptance that the single currency might have to be delayed was the first sign. But more important still has been his party's readiness to grasp and promote the confederal blueprint offered by a group of academics outside Europe's political institutions.

Although no one can be quite sure, the German Christian Democrats seem to have copied much of the report of the European Constitutional Group, which emerged out of a conversation between two academics in Vienna a year ago.

The report*, also being studied by the British Foreign Office, seems to offer pro-European democrats the best way forward after Maastricht. Complex and well argued, it proposes a two-chamber European parliament, including one drawn directly from the national parliaments. It would downgrade the unelected commission. Unequivocally, the heads of member governments would be 'the highest political authority in the Union and define its direction'.

These academic constitution-makers, perhaps now followed by the largest party in Europe's largest country, would replace the super-state agenda with a democratic structure far more closely plugged into national politics, a middle way between the super-statist dreams of Brussels and the collapse of Europeanism into nationalist rivalry. In tone, there is a refreshing mix of German federalism and British anti-statism.

For the academics' paper is far more libertarian and anti-bureaucratic than Maastricht itself. That treaty swaggered with the pomposity of rulers. This proposal insists that 'power rests with the peoples of Europe and is transmitted through the institutions of their member states to be shared at Union level. Powers do not flow downwards from a higher Community level. They are not to be exercised by a detached European elite according to some superior wisdom . . .'

It will be immediately objected that this is merely the vapouring of a few academics. All I can say is that European union has several times come close to collapse because of its abstruse elitism, the lack of involvement of Europeans outside the governing groups. And these proposals seem more clearly grounded in democratic, free-trade principles, more relevant to economics and considerably less dull, than the treaty produced from inside the existing institutions. As the autumn summit season advances, the best test of European leaders will be not their dullness, but their readiness to think again.

* 'A European Constitutional Settlement', pounds 20, available from the European Policy Forum, 20 Queen Anne's Gate, London SW1H 9AA.