A clear choice

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 October, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 October, 1996, 12:00am

After years of debate, Western Europe suddenly seems on path for monetary union. Sometimes helped by creative accounting, more and more countries are forecast to meet the criteria for joining the economic and monetary union due to begin at the very end of the century. Talk is growing of bending the rules further to ensure that countries of Southern Europe, which labour under large budget problems, will be able to get under the wire and join.

The determination of Germany and France, the two biggest players, to get the union going is unquestionable. This is partly a matter of economics, partly politics. But it also rests on something much more fundamental - the contrast between the 75 years between 1870 and 1945 in which the two countries fought three wars at the cost of many millions of lives and the last half-century in which they have lived in peace and harmony. That is the kind of bedrock which makes for lasting partnerships.

One country stands out in this process, Britain. As the Conservative Party gathers for its annual conference this week, the doubts about continuing with the process of European integration are as alive and well as ever in the United Kingdom. The ruling Conservative Party is deeply divided on the issue; if the Labour Party wins power as expected at the next election, it may find the European question more of a headache than it expects.

Doubts about the union are entirely legitimate. It is a club which will be run on the lines of Germany's tight-money, low inflation economy. France has already paid a high price for following Germany's model, with persistently high unemployment. However strong the franc in currency markets, successive governments in Paris have reaped the electoral unpopularity which results. But the onward momentum has taken the whole project into a new phase.

Basically, Britain and other doubters have to decide whether they want to be part of what may be a far-from-comfortable association, or whether they want to stay outside. The old British fudge of being half in, half out may no longer be possible. Mr Major, whose control of his own party often appears tenuous, will no doubt go on trying to have the best of all worlds, and ending up in fresh trouble. Conservatives will fly the flag of chauvinism, and put forward a dangerous and false picture of facing a stark choice between remaining a sovereign power and joining in Europe's forward movement.

John Major would do well to listen to his friend, Chris Patten, who said at the weekend that one lesson he drew from Hong Kong was that 'it's possible to be an open community, it's possible to be an international-minded community while retaining a sense of identity.' For Britain, Europe remains an opportunity to be grasped, not a threat to be fled from - particularly when others are so set on moving ahead.