LONDON — THE European Community's most powerful countries are urgently searching for common ground after two weeks of turbulence that humbled the British pound, jolted the French franc, and threw passage of the Community's Maastricht Treaty deeper in doubt. But they are making their bid for unity in an atmosphere of back-biting across and within political frontiers.
Germany and France, widely regarded as the Community's core countries, are trying to restore their mutual confidence in the Maastricht Treaty on European Union amid fears in Bonn that the French people, in their referendum last week, displayed fading faith in a uniting Europe.
Last weekend Chancellor Helmut Kohl spoke of the "urgent need" to ratify Maastricht by year's end. Mr. Kohl warned that a "two speed Europe" might develop if this were not done.
On Friday a meeting of Christian Democrat leaders from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Greece said the European Monetary System (EMS) should be maintained despite the tumult of the previous two weeks. They issued their statement a day after Britain's Prime Minister John Major had told an emergency session of the British Parliament that reform of the EMS and its Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) was essential.
Kohl hinted on Friday that an inner group of EC countries - Germany, France, and the Benelux nations - might have to go it alone on the treaty if other Community members hesitated. Britain, which holds the EC's rotating presidency, appeared in sharp disagreement with Germany on this idea, as well as over the need to move swiftly to ratify Maastricht.
A British minister said: "Putting pressure on us at a time like this is counterproductive and will deepen political divisions over Maastricht and the ERM."
In the run-up to an emergency EC summit called for Oct. 16, Mr. Major plans to meet French President Francois Mitterrand this week to try to head off possible Franco-German attempts to promote a two-speed EC, with poorer countries, including Britain, relegated to the slow lane. But as he strove to reassert his authority as EC chairman, Major was hampered by calls from some 100 Conservative MPs, including government ministers, to water down Maastricht and stay out of the ERM permanently.
In addition, Britain and Germany, already at loggerheads over the role of the Bundesbank in the currency-market crisis, engaged in a dispute that exposed long-standing national enmities.
German authorities last week announced plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first launch of the V-2 ballistic rocket that killed several thousand Britons in World War II. Winston Churchill, grandson of the wartime prime minister, and a Conservative MP, urged Major to lodge an official protest with Kohl.
For Britain's prime minister, disagreements between Britain and its EC partners are already part of the political fabric of his ruling Conservative Party. There are indications that his prestige and influence have been reduced by Britain's forced withdrawal from the ERM. He is caught in crossfire between Conservative Party figures urging him to moderate his enthusiasm for Maastricht and EC leaders insisting that he take resolute action against British Euroskeptics.
In last week's parliamentary debate, Major was widely judged to have come off second best in exchanges with John Smith, new leader of the opposition Labour Party. Labour is holding its annual conference this week, and Smith has signaled that he intends to press home an attack on Major, whom he called "the devalued prime minister of a devalued government."
Next week the Conservatives hold their conference, and Major's officials have already told him to expect an assault on Maastricht from scores of his own MPs. Yesterday a poll of Conservative MPs showed that 4 out of 10 would vote against the treaty if it were placed before Parliament. Two out of 10 said they wanted the entire process of European integration halted.
Equally worrying for the prime minister was the cool reception Conservative MPs gave his speech in the House of Commons. This contrasted with their warmer response to remarks by Norman Lamont, chancellor of the exchequer, who had indicated that he was less enthusiastic than Major about Maastricht.
A source close to the prime minister said last weekend that Major was dismayed at the sudden deterioration of relations between London and Bonn. On a visit to Bonn early last year Major said he wanted Britain to be "at the heart of Europe." But the Bundesbank's "half-hearted" attempt to help the pound, the source said, contrasted sharply with its "determined and apparently successful" support for the French franc last week.
Sir Leon Brittan, a former Conservative Cabinet minister and the senior British official on the EC's Commission in Brussels, said that Chancellor Kohl's references to a two-speed Europe were intended to flash a signal to London that Germany and France would not tolerate indefinite delay in ratification of the Maastricht Treaty.
"A tightly knit group of countries on the continent," Brittan said, "would take decisions of huge consequence for British politics." It was essential for Britain to press ahead with ratification of the treaty so as not to be excluded from the process.