Will Europe go to war again?

A single currency could inflame old enmities, says a Eurocrat's new book. But it is not all it appears
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The Independent Online
"Currency union could lead to war, says top EC man" was the improbable headline in another newspaper earlier this week.

The story behind it runs like this. Bernard Connolly, a fairly senior bureaucrat in Brussels, who is in charge of the paperwork preparing for European Monetary Union, took some unpaid leave and wrote a book* arguing that the plan for EMU is a confidence trick. Of course we must keep out of it, but that goes without saying. The real danger is that the result could be war between Germany and France.

As a story it is, of course, pure gold for the Europhobes. Here is the chap in charge of putting the EMU together not just saying that it is nuts; not just that Britain should stay out; he is saying that it is so dangerous a creation of madmen on the Continent that the German tanks might again roll across Flanders fields, as they have three times in the past 150 years. That is one to sock those British lovers of a European superstate in the eyes. Be in favour of EMU and you are not just selling Britain down the drain; you are condemning Europe to another war. Only this brave Brit in Brussels, who will probably be sacked for having the courage to speak out, can save us from carnage.

For Europhiles, this is one more example of British paranoia. Of course, they would say, there are grave difficulties in the path of EMU; but it is natural for an economic region as integrated as Europe to have a single currency and in any case a single currency will help integration. Connolly's description of the plan for EMU as the battleground between French technocrats intent on emasculating German financial power, and German politicians intent on making France an economic colony, is bizarre. To suggest, as he does, that anyone who stands in their way must be eliminated, so somehow they conspired to get rid of Mrs Thatcher, is to live in the land of fantasy.

But both phobes and philes would accept that even before the book has been published it has stirred strong emotions. Whatever happens to Mr Connolly's career as an international civil servant he is guaranteed a lucrative income as a writer and public speaker. All the world loves a whistle-blower, particularly if the whistle warns of war. But what should the rest of us make of all this?

Alas, as with so many things in life, the headline is stronger than the story. The book is not 400 pages of unremitting rant, but rather a detailed and interesting outline of the history of Europe's efforts to hold its currencies together following the break-up of the Bretton Woods fixed exchange rate system in 1971-72. Stage one was the "snake", stage two was the Exchange Rate Mechanism, and stage three is European Currency Union. Then at the end of what is, in the main, a factual account, come 20 pages of pure polemic. Sample: "Still the cynicism of the French technocrats, traitors to their own people, and the arrogant, overbearing, menacing zeal of the German federalists, not to mention the grandiose ambitions of Helmut Kohl, remain on collision course. The result of this clash of forces cannot yet be predicted with any precision. But it will be extremely unpleasant for the peoples of Europe."

The trouble with this sort of stuff is that it makes you look back through the factual side of the book and look for bias. Of course it is there. Here is just one example. Suddenly in the middle of a discussion of the French "franc fort" policy in the wake of sterling's expulsion from the ERM, there are references to France's adherence to the gold standard in the Thirties. Fine, there are some interesting parallels. But to say there is a parallel between "France's perceived need to appease Nazi Germany" and its desire not to have another devaluation is to put a really quite unjustified spin on the tale.

There were and are perfectly legitimate reasons why France did not want to throw away a decade's efforts to establish credibility in the French franc. It has gone through much of the pain of cutting inflation, but was not yet benefiting from the lower interest rates that this should bring. There is a perfectly legitimate argument that the policy has not worked, but to talk in terms of the appeasement of Hitler suggests that there is something odd about the hothouse atmosphere of Brussels which affects people who stay there too long. Maybe that is the way some of these people think; but if there are perfectly sensible justifications for a policy, why hunt for nutty ones?

And there lies the problem with this book. It could have been a wonderfully useful analysis for anyone seeking to understand a grand social and political issue. Bits of it are useful, for example the way Mr Connolly highlights the key "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" point about EMU: it is much easier to get currency convergence if you have economic convergence; but if you can impose an element of currency convergence you will also encourage economic convergence. Basically the Germans emphasise the first, the French the second.

It is helpful, too, to have the difficulties and dangers of EMU spelt out. But to stir in so much bias and bile to a critique of the project is to draw attention away from the genuine objections to it.

Mr Connolly is right in stressing that EMU is a Franco-German plan. The key economic issue is whether the French and German economies are sufficiently integrated - are sufficiently natural partners - to make a currency union feasible. The key political issue is whether the pattern of the past 50 years, of defusing the tensions between the two countries by having a series of negotiated agreements on specific matters, can continue with this maybe overambitious project.

My guess on the economics is that this is not an optimal currency area: the structure of the two economies is too different, and should remain different because the countries have different comparative advantages: France has great strength in craft and some high-technology sectors, while Germany is locked into excellence in upper-middle ranking electro-mechanical technologies. The balance of advantage will shift over the next couple of decades and each will need different economic policies. My guess on the politics (but I may be very wrong) is that Europe's electorates will either recognise this and reject a single currency, or that if one is imposed it will break up after a few years. But that break-up, though painful, will not be a catastrophe for Europe. It will simply have reached a point of political integration from which it cannot and need not proceed any further.

And us? We go back to our traditional relationship. We are Europeans culturally and economically, but we have always been the most outward looking of the European nations. Since the rest of the world will grow faster than Europe over the next generation, that is no bad place to be.

* 'The Rotten Heart of Europe', Bernard Connolly, Faber & Faber, pounds 17.50.