Europeans Find Unity Elusive : Symptoms of Eurosclerosis

Don Cook is The Times' European diplomatic correspondent.

The growing vocabulary of "Eurospeak," which includes such common-use terms as "Europessimism," "Eurocrats" and "Eurofroth," has recently been enriched with a word coined by Prof. H.J.A. Vierath, an economist at Kiel University in West Germany.

The new word is "Eurosclerosis," and it applies to the atrophy of action and political willpower that slows Europrogress to wheelchair speed. It can regularly be diagnosed in political leaders, trade unionists, economists, bureaucrats and decision-makers in industrial enterprises everywhere in Europe.

Eurosclerosis was much in evidence recently at Milan, where a meeting of the European Community's 10 heads of government bogged down in one of the most acrimonious arguments ever heard at these thrice-yearly summit conferences. It was all the more unfortunate because the preparations for Milan had been smooth and positive. Then it all came apart.

The major topic at Milan was how to improve the workings of the community, and in particular how to curtail the use of the veto and make majority decisions the practice if not the rule. Along with various formulas to deal with the veto problem, there were proposals to create a new political secretariat to coordinate a continuous exchange of information on foreign-policy matters, and to increase somewhat the authority of the European Parliament.

If decisions had been taken on these proposals, the meeting at Milan would have merited that breathtaking word "progress." But everything bogged down in bitter argument not about objectives but about method. The community divided, not for the first or last time, between British pragmatists and continental idealists.

The British, who do not even have a written constitution, and who are traditionally wary of signing treaties, wanted to settle the veto question and other proposals simply by common agreement. But the continental idealists, the six original members of the old European Coal and Steel Community, were determined to amend the 1958 Treaty of Rome, the foundation of the community, in order to give the new undertaking a sense of genuine progress in the building of Europe--"Eurofroth," a British writer calls it.

The heads of government argued for the better part of two days, at times so caustically that the conference chairman, Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, several times called a break to let everybody cool down. But Craxi then took the unusual step of calling for a vote, on his own proposal (backed by France and West Germany), to convene an intergovernmental conference of community members to draft amendments to the treaty.

Predictably, the British were defeated, 7 to 3. They were supported only by the Danes and Greeks. Ireland voted with Italy, France and the Germans plus the three Benelux countries.

The argument in Milan was not just about method; it was really about who is going to lead the community. It is the old competition between Britain and France, in the familiar idealistic trappings. The strength of the idealistic approach against the easier pragmatic approach clearly caught Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by surprise, particularly because the proposals the British had put forth were almost indistinguishable from those being pushed by France and Germany with the backing of Italy.

After nearly five years of continuous battling with the community over budget matters, the British thought that their Milan proposals had at last put them with the highest common denominator of European action, not the lowest. It was perplexing and aggravating for them to find President Francois Mitterrand of France trumping their card. With parliamentary elections in France barely six months away, Mitterrand wants France to be seen as leading Europe. Form became more important than substance.

Nor had the British expected West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who had vetoed a community agreement on farm prices in early June, suddenly to rush the other way and line up with the French. Nor did they expect Craxi to call for a vote--for the first time ever at a summit meeting.

So British pragmatism lost out. Europe, it seems, had to take a step backward before it can take two steps forward. The two steps forward could have been taken in Milan, but now there will be yet another conference, in October, to draft treaty amendments, and the drafters will report back to the next summit conference, in Luxembourg in December. There is not much logic in calling a conference by a majority vote to take decisions that must be unanimous.

Nevertheless, in the weeks since Milan, their have been telephone calls and telegrams and consultations galore in an effort to contain the damage, to reduce temperatures and calm the political atmosphere.

Prime Minister Thatcher took a markedly less strident tone when she reported to the House of Commons than she did at her late-night news conference after the battle in Milan. The British, she says determinedly, will play a full role in the special October conference. Ironically, the prospect is that in order to get unanimous agreement on new treaty language, the continental six may well have to settle for terms that do not go as far as pragmatic agreement would have yielded in Milan.

On the assumption that nothing emerges that will go beyond the original British proposals, Thatcher is probably ready to swallow her pragmatism and submit treaty amendments to the House of Commons. Denmark and Greece are less certain, both governments having come out publicly against anything that goes beyond the Treaty of Rome.

At best, therefore, it looks like a hollow victory for the idealists, and a lost opportunity at Milan. Eurofroth may be important, but Eurosclerosis could be fatal.

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