European Unity Drive Slackens

Public debates and fresh opposition to ratifying the Maastricht treaty signal that the European Community is reaching the limits of what the public is willing to accept

WHEN European Community leaders meeting in the Dutch city of Maastricht last December culminated a year of negotiations with a new treaty for deeper EC economic and political integration, there was as much disgruntlement in the air as there was satisfaction.

For all the optimism over a commitment to a single European currency by the end of the decade, some were disappointed that monetary union would not come sooner, and that all 12 current EC members may not be on board. There was praise for decisions to eventually move toward a common foreign policy, but disappointment that institutional reform and democratic accounta- bility in the EC were put off.

Yet four months later, as the 12 EC countries each get down to the business of ratifying the Maastricht Treaty, the public debates and outright opposition bubbling up from Denmark to France indicate that Maastricht negotiators probably reached the limits of what the public is ready to accept in the way of European integration.

"We're already seeing some rancorous debate in four or five member countries, with worries about ... sovereignty ... a common theme," says one EC official close to the thinking of EC Commission President Jacques Delors. "What that tells us is that in Maastricht we went about as far as we could go."

EC officials and observers say they see little chance the treaty will not be ratified by the end of the year. Many of them note that Britain, the one country that debated deeper political and monetary union during treaty negotiations, is also one country where ratification seems assured. From that, they conclude that public debate on such momentous issues is both necessary and likely to work in favor of ratification.

"The Maastricht changes are so great, it's certainly not unhealthy to have these debates," says Stanley Crossick, director of the Belmont European Policy Center here. "The truly strange aspect of European democracy is that, Britain aside, the debate is coming after the decisions." Dearth of democracy

Underlying the difficulties the treaty is running into is the absence in the Community of many basics of the democratic process, says Mr. Crossick. Recalling an overview he recently gave at the Brookings Institution in Washington on the Maastricht negotiations, he says, "When I explained how more than 10,000 words had been agreed behind closed doors, they were amazed."

In several countries, the turbulence Maastricht ratification confronting is a reflection of domestic discontent and worry.

In France, for example, the Maastricht debate is hitting amid a deep national identity crisis. The French are worried about where France stands in a world where its traditional role as a significant second-tier power between two antagonistic superpowers is no longer valid, and where Germany is attaining political powers to match its economic and demographic strength.

In that context, far-right leader Jean-Marie LePen's pronouncement that Maastricht constitutes "the beginning of the end of France" strikes a sensitive chord.

The treaty also faces opposition from the Communists to conservative Gaullists, who argue it strikes a blow at a Europe of nations and diversity.

Marie-France Garaud, a prominent political thinker in the Gaullist tradition, says Maastricht marks the passage from "a Europe of independent states to a federal system," even though a reference to the EC's "federal goal" was struck from the text.

Ms. Garaud and other conservatives have strongly criticized French President Francois Mitterrand for designating the country's parliament to ratify the treaty: They say only the French people, via a referendum, have the authority to transfer such important aspects of national sovereignty.

The parliamentary route has two domestic advantages for Mr. Mitterrand:

* In the tradition of French contemporary politics, a referendum could have turned into a vote of confidence on Mitterrand's leadership. And with his popularity already low, Mitterrand didn't want to take that risk.

* Mitterrand may see the parliamentary debate as a chance to split the conservative opposition, since the followers of former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing generally favor Maastricht, while their Gaullist allies are less enthusiastic.

Debate in France also swirls around the treaty provision to create EC citizenship and allow EC citizens to vote in local and European elections wherever they live in the Community. For the French, the citizenship question leads directly to the explosive immigration issue, especially since the ruling Socialist Party has a dormant proposal for allowing resident foreigners the right to vote in local elections.

In Germany, part of the generally pro-Europe population has soured on Maastricht because the debate comes just as the cost of reunification is hitting home. Concern is mounting that monetary union will force Germany to give up its central symbol of national stability and affluence, the deutsche mark, in return for a currency plagued by southern-European-style inflation and budget mismanagement.

In a telling shift, outgoing German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher has ceased referring to the "Ecu," or European Currency Unit, and speaks instead of a "Euro-mark." Germans may want veto

Germany's states, or Lnder, are also worried that too much of their power is being transferred to EC hands. Before Germany ratifies the Maastricht treaty, probably near the end of the year, Lnder leaders may require a veto on any future power transfers in return for support of the treaty.

Only two countries, Denmark and Ireland, have chosen a referendum to ratify the treaty. Denmark's campaign for its June 2 vote is off to a rough start, with surveys showing deep misgivings over perceived losses of sovereignty, treaty language calling for an eventual common European defense, and monetary union.

As for Ireland, its referendum, set for June 18, got caught up in the country's emotional abortion debate, after Irish leaders were granted a special clause guaranteeing that nothing in the treaty affects Ireland's ban on abortion. The government has only partially extricated Maastricht from the abortion maelstrom by promising a separate abortion referendum later in the year.

The other EC members are expected to ratify the treaty with little commotion, although new obstacles could arise.

Spain, for example, is hinting that it could still shake up what is anticipated to be an easy treaty ratification there this autumn. Its preoccupation: Support is weakening during Europe's economic downturn for a special fund approved in Maastricht to help the EC's poorer members catch up with their wealthier partners.

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