BY casting the lone vote against Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene assuming the top post in the European Union, British Prime Minister John Major may have reignited the simmering debate over the very nature of the EU.
Britain's veto June 25, the only objection in an 11-1 EU vote in favor of Mr. Dehaene, was based largely on domestic politics. The Conservative Party's weak standing and Mr. Major's own tenuous position within that party made it too attractive to placate the Euro-skeptic wing by opposing Dehaene, who is seen to be a strong European federalist in the mold of outgoing EU president Jacques Delors.
Early applause from across the Conservative ranks indicates his strategy has paid at least short-term dividends. But in doing so, he has now clearly turned from his pro-union past and wandered back to the negative anti-unionism of Margaret Thatcher. Some Britons worry that this course will only contribute to their country's increasing isolation and a falling behind as the rest of Europe speeds toward closer political, monetary, and economy unity.
But Major's stand represented more than just a British Euro-skeptical element. The low voter turnout in early June elections for the European Parliament was an expression of widespread dissatisfaction with the union. The EU was to bring prosperity and peace to Europe; high unemployment and the unsolved war in Bosnia show those goals to be embarrassingly unmet. And several countries, though unwilling to vote against Dehaene, clearly were privately disturbed that the Franco-German axis that put him forward will become too dominant within the EU.
French President Francois Mitterrand has said the British veto could renew a ``fundamental debate'' about ``concepts of Europe.'' The question is no less than whether the EU should continue with its scheduled march toward 1996 and a strong union or whether it should look to the ``multispeed, multitrack, multifaceted'' European model posited by British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd.
The spat over the EU presidency should not be overdramatized as a ``crisis''; nor need it become one. It is better seen as a wake-up call for European federalists who now must begin to restate their case. There are EU accomplishments to trumpet and good arguments for yet-closer union. It's time to hear them again.