The Larger Wonder of European Unity

MEMBER nations of the European Community will have a twofold opportunity next month to show just how serious they are about closer integration. The occasions will be two conferences in Rome at which the EC is to map out plans for political union and for monetary and economic union, respectively. These conferences will be ``litmus tests''; they will show whether there has indeed been a pause in the progress toward greater Euro-unity, as some suspect.

We know what Margaret Thatcher thinks about integration beyond the free-trade ``single market'' concept: She has grave misgivings about what she sees as a surrender of national sovereignty. She was heard the other day to wonder aloud how she could ever tell Queen Elizabeth that her picture would no longer be on banknotes.

Mrs. Thatcher's government has been torn over policy on Europe. Some of this has to be understood as natural phenomena when the prime minister is well into her 12th year of governing, and not only her Labour opposition but some in her own Conservative Party are wondering whether it is time for a change. Sir Geoffrey Howe, her deputy prime minister, resigned earlier this month - less on the actual substance of the issue than over the tone of the discussion.

He expressed concern that by being so stridently vocal in opposition to what the other EC countries seem to be agreeing to, Mrs. Thatcher ``will make it more difficult for Britain to hold and retain a position of influence in this vital debate.''

There certainly is a role for Britain in this and other EC discussions. Reunified Germany may be the biggest player at the table, but some of the smaller members are keen to have the British counterbalance Germany and the Franco-German tie. Moreover, she has often been the one to say aloud what others have been thinking.

``This won't be the first time Britain has hit the brakes, only to rejoin the party sooner or later,'' says an EC observer, referring to the episode that precipitated Sir Geoffrey's resignation. Thatcher's braking actions have, this observer allows, enabled the EC to rethink some of its positions to good effect.

And Thatcher hasn't, let's be fair, been a complete obstructionist. She did finally agree to have Britain join the EC's Exchange Rate Mechanism, after opposing it for 11 years. ERM will link the pound sterling to other European currencies, and is expected to cause Britain some character-building fiscal discomfort.

In any case, we shouldn't lose sight of the larger wonder - that the European Community is proceeding as far as it is and as fast as it is toward economic and even political union.

One tries to imagine how the United States would have functioned had the political construct not been set when the newly independent colonies were still very much developing countries. What if the Founding Fathers had faced the challenge of trying to bring together a group of fairly mature nation-states each with its own tradition, laws, political culture?

Whatever precise form European unity takes, and however much kicking and screaming herald its coming, an EC that can act in concert is a useful counterweight to the United States, especially in a time of geopolitical uncertainty in Eastern Europe and the Gulf. That the EC is an economic and political body, and not a military one, is helpful too.

It ain't over till it's over, of course, but so far we can certainly see how EC sanctions are helpfully supporting the Bush administration in the Gulf. The European response has made more credible the argument that what we see is the world united against Saddam Hussein, and not George Bush attacking the Arabs. For a group that just a few years ago seemed unable to agree on what day of the week it was, this is a notable achievement. Let's see what happens in December.

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