Risks in Maastricht

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 May, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 May, 1993, 12:00am

FOR the moment, Europe's political establishment is celebrating. The people of Denmark have accepted the Maastricht Treaty on European union, although in a version so riddled with exemptions it scarcely can be described as union at all.

But when the Euro-euphoria dies down - perhaps as early as tonight, when the deeply divided British House of Commons votes on ratification - some hard questions will have to be confronted. Even if Britain were to follow the Danish lead, many would ask just what is left of the ideals the Maastricht Treaty was meant to embody.

In the European Community's Brussels headquarters, as in the 12 member states, the shock waves of Denmark's unexpected rejection of the full treaty last year are still being felt. British politics have been paralysed by the Conservative Party's split over Maastricht. French ambivalence - over issues which had little to do with the treaty - almost killed it.

Even in Germany, once seen as the bedrock of European conformism, the treaty faces challenges in the constitutional court. The countries of southern Europe also have been having second thoughts. As they struggle to meet the economic reform targets set by the treaty, they have discovered (as Britain did last year) that their economies may be crippled in the process.

Here in Hongkong, if people mention Maastricht at all it is in the context of European Monetary Union and the increasingly distant goal of a single European currency - from which both Denmark and Britain have withdrawn. Monetary union entails bitter fiscal and monetary medicine for Europe's weakest economies to bring them in line with the German economic powerhouse and few governments have had the stomach for it.

Germany itself has had to pay for the absorption of the ailing East German economy with a painful recession and high interest rates. Matching those rates undermined recovery in every nation within the European Exchange Rate Mechanism as well as those, suchas Sweden, which tried to maintain a stable exchange rate against it. Outside the system, Britain has now begun to recover.

Europe, both East and West, desperately needs some exchange rate stability. The more countries that can work within a reformed but flexible exchange rate mechanism the better. But the rigidities of the Maastricht model are good for no one. They should bedropped as soon as the ratification process is over and the Twelve can sit down together and talk rationally again.

But Maastricht deals with much more than monetary union. It covers a common defence policy (from which the Danes have opted out), a common social policy (which Britain has rejected) and a common environment policy. The Danes meanwhile have pulled out of European citizenship and immigration policies, about which Britain and France also have reservations.

The key to the non-monetary side of Maastricht, however, was the ideal of a common foreign policy, which would have given Europe an international political voice to match its economic might. Sadly for Hongkong, which might have gained from a joint European policy on relations with China, the foreign affairs element of Maastricht was dead before the treaty was signed. Europe's disarray over the break-up of Yugoslavia destroyed its credibility from the start. But one thing Maastricht is not, nor was ever intended to be, is a trade policy.

Hongkong, indeed the whole of Asia, justly fears the development of a protectionist ''fortress Europe''. The continued delay in completing the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, like the row with the United States over Europe'srefusal to open its telecommunications market, testifies to its protectionist tendencies. At the same time, where it does have access, Asia benefits hugely from the development of the European internal market of 320 million consumers, with its unified standards for everything from toy-safety to computers.

The goal of a Common Market was first set out in principle in Europe's founding Treaty of Rome in 1954 and reinforced in the 1980s with the setting of a 1992 deadline for its completion. It is now largely in place and has been extended to the remaining members of the European Free Trade Area.

Yet neither Europe's protectionism nor the opening of its single internal market stands or falls by Maastricht. They are the foundations on which the hopes of political and economic union were to be built. The danger is not that the Maastricht Treaty will lead to greater European insularity. It is that the same international economic and political changes which have led to its failure will push Europe behind the protectionist fences which stability and prosperity might otherwise have broken down.