No Euro Paeans, Yet

Europe has long flown its star-circled flag. Its supporters sing their world-stirring anthem: Beethoven/Schiller's Ode to Joy. But there is no joy, still, over the European Union's faltering attempts to get its last cementing symbol, the euro, locked into place.

Twenty years hence the current anguish over getting the core EU nations' economies into alignment before integrating them with a common currency and a common central bank may seem exaggerated. But not today.

As Britain fast approaches a potentially dynasty-changing election, and Germany prepares for its own watershed vote next year, the major European economies are caught in a dilemma. Germany and France can enforce their current drive to synchronize economies through budget belt-tightening - at the cost of stagnation and persisting unemployment. Or they can relax the belt-tightening and risk a union in which more northern European factories and jobs slip toward Mediterranean sites.

As wags have noted, if Europe had to unite its economies under its own rules tomorrow, the result would be about as powerful as a cloned sheep. Or perhaps a string quartet instead of Beethoven's Ninth. Only Luxembourg, Ireland, Finland, and the Netherlands meet the fiscal requirements.

But no great enterprise is built on hesitance and pessimism. Given what seem to be intractable problems, present and future, what can be done?

First, recognize that Britain's pre-election hesitance over Europe doesn't mean that the big power with the healthiest economic growth won't eventually join the party.

Second, remember that peoples and states do not progress through bureaucracies alone. German and French politicians cannot persuade workers (much less the jobless) that current stagnation will end when euros enter their pockets.

Both must continue to trim their welfare states in order to allow new enterprises and streamlined old industries to grow and create jobs. That way lies more personal and business income, more tax revenue, and less unemployment cost. And that way, therefore, lies more fiscal soundness to meet EU rules.

Once the restructuring of the old welfare states is complete, a somewhat looser European union can be visualized, coalescing around the core states. In that context, further growth of the Mediterranean economies will seem a less threatening outcome. British hesitance may abate if the Continentals follow London's growth example. And, sometime in the next century, the expansion of NATO into Central Europe may pave the way for still more members of the European family to join this free market of jobs, trade, education, and culture.

It used to be said of France's de Gaulle that he had brilliant long vision, but stumbled over the furniture. Much the same is said today of Helmut Kohl - and his vision of a grand EU. It's time for him to get the furniture out of the way.

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