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Euro Disunity

They blamed the Danes. But behind the row about that referendum, says Helen Simons, there is something rotten in all the other states of Europe

The rejection of the Maastricht treaty in a Danish referendum in May seemed to plunge the whole of the European Community into a state of chaos. The treaty, signed by all the EC governments in December, was supposed to pave the way towards European political and monetary union. At that time it was acclaimed as the way forward into the next century. Almost overnight, the refusal of the Danes to ratify the treaty seemed to throw the entire project of closer European integration into doubt.

Only 50 000

How could this have come about? It is hard to believe that the actions of a small nation like Denmark alone could wreak political havoc across the continent - and harder still when you realise that voters in the Danish referendum rejected Maastricht by a slim majority of around 50 000. Ordinarily, the opinions of 50 000 Danes would not be sufficient to cause such political ructions in Bonn, Paris, London and the other capitals of the EC nations. There was clearly something more involved.

The Danish referendum result was not the cause of the crisis, but the catalyst, bringing to the surface many of the underlying tensions in European society today.

At Maastricht, John Major's British government stood out as the lone critical voice of opposition in the treaty negotiations. Today, other European states have come out as sceptics. The voices of doubt and dissent can now be heard in the once unswervingly pro-European capitals of Dublin, Rome, Paris and Bonn.

After Maastricht

In all of these countries, the debate about Europe has turned into a convenient focus for other national controversies. Hostility to closer EC integration has become entangled with the wider political and economic crises of Europe.

In a sense, it is naive even to ask the question as to how the air of triumph which surrounded the Maastricht deal could have disappeared so quickly. Readers of Living Marxism will know that the euphoria about Maastricht was always pretty shallow. The notion of a smooth and harmonious passage towards unity was never a plausible vision of Europe's future.

The drive towards closer European integration has been spurred by two main economic impulses: the fear of competitive pressure from outside Europe, and the belief in the capacity of Germany to act as a powerhouse pulling Europe along. But there have also been strong impulses acting against European integration.

Friends or foes?

Britain, France, Italy, Germany and the rest are not only European partners. They are also rival capitalist nations, which must compete with one another in the world marketplace. However craftily it is put together, an agreement such as Maastricht on European integration cannot remove the tensions between the capitalist elites of the different European powers. For example, while the other EC members have been happy to hitch a ride with the dynamic German economy, there has also been a sense that closer European integration will mean greater German domination of Europe - a fear expressed in the continuing rows about high German interest rates.

Ambiguity about Euro-unity has long been a feature of the politics of EC member states. As new concerns have entered into the calculation, closer integration now seems a less attractive option to many. Three factors in particular have come together to expose the idea of genuine European unity as a remote dream.

First, the economic slump has undermined talk of European unity by highlighting the divergent interests of different capitalist nations. One of the early signs of the retreat from the Maastricht summit came when European Commission president Jacques Delors put a price tag on the agreement. Delors demanded an increase in budgetary contributions of 31 per cent - a figure which would turn a country like Italy from a net recipient of EC funds to a net contributor. Even the German government responded with Margaret Thatcher-style protests, and the EC finance ministers threw out the proposals.


The recession has not only made governments less willing to pay the price of new Euro-measures, it has also upset existing economic arrangements. The European Monetary System (EMS), and particularly the Exchange Rate Mechanism within it, has come under considerable strain in recent months. While fear of inflation has led the Bundesbank to raise German interest rates, the rest of recession-hit Europe is crying out for rates to be cut. Since no European nation can buck the German trend within the EMS, talk of abandoning the system has become more widespread.

The second factor acting against integration this year has been the crisis of legitimacy facing the major parties and national institutions across Europe, as discussed elsewhere in this issue of Living Marxism. The fracturing of traditional allegiances, and the emergence of new parties and right-wing splinter groups, has done much to derail the 'European express' which six months ago was said to be unstoppable. The Danish referendum result was a prime example of how opposing further European integration has become a focus for general dissatisfaction with the existing political set-up. Similar trends are at work elsewhere in Europe.

Now the French

In France, the right has sought to use the Euro-debate as a means of mobilising support, by playing up fears of German domination and tapping anti-foreign feeling (for example by protesting that the EC could give other Europeans the right to vote in France). The right's attempt to use the European issue to exploit the crisis facing the Socialist government has helped to turn Europe into an issue of French domestic politics. The day after the Danish polls closed, president Mitterrand conceded to pressure for a French referendum on Maastricht.

In Italy, the rise of regionalist sentiments and the crisis of the national political system has served to undermine the integrationist spirit. And in Ireland, the ratification of the Maastricht treaty became a major issue when it got caught up in the renewed controversy about the state's constitution. Many of those urging a 'no' vote in Ireland's June referendum on Maastricht were not talking about Europe at all. Their case was that the treaty's stipulations on the free movement of EC citizens would undermine the Republic's constitutional ban on abortion, by making it easier for Irish women to travel to Britain to terminate a pregnancy.

The final factor which has recently tipped the balance against wholehearted support for integration is the role of the new Germany in Europe. Other EC members have long liked to think of Germany as a slumbering giant which would pick up the tab but not cause trouble for its neighbours. This year, however, Germany's European partners have been shocked to find that the giant has awoken. Right at the start of the year, Germany went out on a limb in recognising Croatian independence, and forced the EC to follow its lead. Such boldness was a clear statement of German intent to be the senior partner in European political affairs. As Germany's assertiveness increases, so does anti-German sentiment elsewhere.

As time has elapsed since Maastricht, it has also become evident that Germany will no longer pick up the tab for the EC. The cost of German reunification and the creation of a new sphere of influence in Eastern Europe have made German politicians more circumspect about the benefits of West European union, as one Christian Democrat official explained:

'For decades we saw the EC as a solution to our troubles. Now with everyone in Eastern Europe hanging around our necks there is a tendency to see the community as adding to our problems - another burden.' (Independent on Sunday, 23 February 1992)

According to recent polls, only 10 per cent of Germans say they want European integration accelerated. And there are growing complaints about the wisdom of a planned monetary union which would hitch the powerful Deutschmark to weak European currencies.

Despite the panic which followed the Danish result, the recent trends working against European integration are not decisive. The EC is not about to break up, and closer economic cooperation remains a pressing necessity for all member states. The most hardened Euro-sceptic in the Tory Party long ago abandoned any serious idea that Britain could 'go it alone'.


However, after the catalytic effect of the Danish referendum in bringing divisions to the fore, the European pipe-dreamers have also had to sober up. It is now clear that there can be no peaceful road to the Euro-unity of rival capitalist states. And there is no popular enthusiasm for any deal done among the discredited governments of Europe. The irony of it all is that, after the excesses of the Maastricht party in December, it is party pooper John Major who, as the new president of the European Community, is responsible for sorting out the mess.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 45, July 1992

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