LONDON — Europe's debate with itself over what its political shape should be when it enters the 21st century is moving rapidly to a climax.
Judging from a week of vigorous diplomacy and cross-border recriminations, it appears that the end result of the debate may be a two-speed European Union (EU), with Britain and several other states in the slow lane.
Germany, France, and five or six "core" countries seem poised to plunge, two years from now, into a political and economic union among themselves. But a weekend summit meeting of EU finance ministers in Dublin suggested that Britain and a half-dozen other states will most likely leave their neighbors to press ahead and integrate, including the adoption of a single currency.
The sense that crunch-time is fast approaching, and that the single-currency question is likely to open a deep split among the EU partners, was underlined by a clash between Bonn and Paris, on the one hand, and Britain on the other.
Germany and France raised the stakes Sept. 17 by declaring their determination to adopt a single currency in 1999, even if other EU members did not do so. Both governments ordered budget cuts aimed at readying their countries for the economic and monetary union (EMU).
The next day Malcolm Rifkind, Britain's foreign secretary, stepped onto a podium in Zurich, Switzerland, and, in a widely publicized speech, warned of the perils of that course. "If monetary union goes ahead, the EU will be divided into two groups of members for the foreseeable future," Mr. Rifkind said. About half of the EU's current membership of 15, and all 12 countries hoping to join the group, would be excluded.
The implications of EMU, Rifkind said, "have not been thoroughly thought through." There was not enough popular support for such a step. Ironically, his comments were intended to mark the 50th anniversary of a speech by Winston Churchill in which Britain's wartime leader called boldly for a "United States of Europe."
The British minister's critical remarks had been approved in advance by Prime Minister John Major, and therefore reflected government policy. Coupled with an announcement from London that Britain was "putting on hold" a cull of 145,000 cattle it had earlier told the EU it would implement, Rifkind's forecast served to deepen the impression that a "two speed" Europe is becoming a virtual certainty.
The British decision to delay the cull, which is designed to wipe out so-called "mad cow" disease in cattle, drew an immediate rebuke from the European Commission in Brussels, the EU's executive arm. A spokesman said that if Britain reneged on the agreement, the EU would not lift its ban on British beef "for the foreseeable future."
Klaus Kinkel, Germany's foreign minister, added his weight to the argument, declaring "a unilateral change by Britain is not acceptable." London's decision was "incomprehensible," he said.
Jacques Santer, president of the European Commission, accused Britain and other states of endangering the EU's existence by slowing moves to greater integration. A single European currency, Mr. Santer said, "now has to be seen to be inevitable" and would emerge on Jan. 1, 1999, under the terms of the 1993 Maastricht Treaty.
"We are on the way to an unprecedented success in the history of European integration, indeed in the history of Europe itself," he declared.
Britain's apparently growing isolation from the European mainstream over EMU and other issues has sparked savage arguments between senior members of Mr. Major's ruling Conservative Party.
In a move that analysts said was unprecedented, six Tory elder statesmen, including former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath, sent a letter to the Independent newspaper last Thursday warning Major against ruling out British membership in a single currency. Britain, they wrote, was "still paying the price of joining the EU 15 years too late.... That is a mistake we must not make again. For us now to rule out British membership of a single currency would be to betray our national interest. To countenance withdrawal from the EU would be to court disaster."
But the letter drew rebukes from Conservative "Euroskeptics" opposed to a single currency and keen for Britain to stand clear of political integration.
GERMANY, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Austria, Finland, and Ireland are well on their way to EMU by 1999, an analysis in the Economist magazine indicated. But another seven EU states - Britain, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Denmark - will most likely not be prepared to join EMU by 1999.
The apparent inevitability of Europe moving at two speeds after 1999 underlay the weekend finance ministers' meeting in Dublin. The best way to introduce the Euro - the unit of the planned joint currency - was discussed in detail.
So too, British officials said Sunday, was the problem of how to manage relations between two EU groups - one using the Euro, the other sticking to national currencies.