EC: Back to the EC drawing board.

EC: Back to the EC drawing board. - After the debacles of 1992, EC architects need to cast a cold eye on policies.

by Peter Wilsher is a freelance consultant and writer.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

After the debacles of 1992, EC architects need to cast a cold eye on policies.

The collapse of the exchange rate mechanism (ERM), even if only temporary, has left a pile of tangled wreckage cluttering Europe's unification track, and a clear Non from the French voters on Maastricht would unquestionably have put the locomotive itself into rapid reverse. But although Mitterrand's fellow-citizens finally decided against rejection, lack of enthusiasm has thrown the whole future direction and destination of the single market project into profound doubt.

The Treaty on European Union, hammered out less than a year ago at Maastricht and then almost immediately derailed by the sceptical Danes, was an immensely and perhaps impossibly ambitious blueprint. It formally dropped the pretence (still myopically clung to by many Britons) that the EC was a merely "economic" community and invested it with virtually all the powers and responsibilities appropriate to a modern sovereign state. It set out a tight, detailed programme of progress towards a single European currency managed by a European central bank. It defined the standards of approved macroeconomic behaviour expected of members and the sanctions that would be imposed on backsliders. It embraced a formidable list of new supranational activities, from foreign policy-making and security to policing and the enforcement of external border controls. It drastically rearranged the Community's decision-making structures so as to limit the role of the Brussels Commission, leave the European Parliament still largely on the sidelines and sharply boost the powers of the Council of Ministers, but with remarkably scant reference to the interests of the 327-million-odd individuals those ministers are supposed to represent. The only gesture towards sugaring that particular pill was a somewhat opaque paragraph attempting to define "subsidiarity", the elusive concept that is supposed to draw the line between the Community's proper business and what is best dealt with elsewhere.

Now, as a result of 1992's many and varied Euro-debacles, all this is being subjected to fresh and far more critical scrutiny. Much is likely to be radically revised, if not scrapped. But however attractive it might seem to put a match to the whole 250-page Maastricht document, that is not really an option. The EC did not come into existence by accident; it evolved because, as all but the most blinkered and nationalistic of politicians have come to recognise, there are jobs that are now too big, too complex, too costly or too dependent on the co-operation of other people for the old-fashioned style of nation-state to handle on its own. Some means must be devised to make sure that they are efficiently done, even if the current attempt appears to have comprehensively failed.

The tragedy of Maastricht is that its architects - first Jacques Delors, then the super-federalist Dutch and finally the heavyweight partnership of Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand - went too far and too fast. Their self-confidence was boosted, too, by a succession of encouraging background factors: a global trading boom, the breaching of the Berlin Wall and the almost miraculous evaporation of the Soviet nuclear threat which appeared to promise a decade of peace and uninterrupted growth.

This optimism was distinctly premature. Now, as the designers return to the drawing board, the skies are once more threateningly dark. Yugoslavia, the floods of tension-exacerbating refugees, the re-integration of the two Germanies, and above all the evaporation of economic growth are all complicating their task. They are also dramatically highlighting the true significance of those convoluted Maastricht clauses about currencies, immigrants, foreign affairs and the circumstances in which that just-invented creature - the European citizen - can be asked to take up arms.

Britain's now-suspended membership of the ERM shows how easily good intentions can go wrong. When John Major and Margaret Thatcher agreed, with almost universal support, to join, the idea was that we should thus, at last, with the help of our monetary partners, break out of the stop-go, devaluation-punctuated, inflation-eroded cycle of decline that has plagued us since the '50s. Instead we now find ourselves with soaring unemployment, record insolvencies, a diminished currency, an attenuated industrial base, and a government that still wants to be "at the heart of Europe" but is probably more petulantly at odds with its neighbours than since the days of General de Gaulle.

Yet the uncomfortable reality remains: Europe is indispensable. However painful and irritating the association, we cannot sensibly cut loose from the region which already accounts for 60% of our exports, 15% of our entire national income, and increasingly determines the nature of our legal, financial, fiscal and environmental backyard. Once, perhaps, we were in a position to take it or leave it. But those days are long gone. Maastricht's successor will appear, in one guise or another, whether we like it or not. Our only sensible strategy is to make sure that next time it is not just a set of largely artificial political compromises but something that actually stays on the rails.

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