THE Oct. 16 emergency European Community meeting in Birmingham, England, comes not a moment too soon. The best laid plans of EC leaders for European integration are coming unraveled owing to popular protest and distrust of the far-reaching Maastricht treaty for union.
Rifts are widening between Germany and England, as pro-Europe British Prime Minister John Major, responding to a falling British pound and falling popularity at home, is distancing himself somewhat from Maastricht. But Mr. Major is hardly the problem; the treaty and the way it has been sold to average Europeans is the problem. Last June the Danes voted it down in a close referendum. Friday's meeting was called after French voters barely passed the Maastricht treaty last month.
The push for a more integrated European market and cooperation is sound, sensible, and needed. But Maastricht, agreed to in one week last December by EC leaders, goes too far, too fast. It represents a future common foreign policy, defense, and political union that is too ill-defined and contains too few clear democratic safeguards to be lightly agreed to by average Europeans.
The Birmingham meeting, which begins discussions ending in nine weeks in Edinburgh, Scotland, must reassure Britons, Danes, and others that Maastricht will not completely cede sovereignty, local power, and national identity to a central government in Brussels. The concept now proposed to do this is "subsidiarity" - a cumbersome word that means no decisions that can be made at lower levels in EC states will be made in Brussels. This is progress toward democracy. But subsidiarity must not be allowed to bec ome some magic bullet that EC leaders use to drive away the complex problems of creating a fair federal state.
Tough questions remain: How do less-powerful nations keep a voice in Europe? Under Maastricht, the European Council can make private decisions on issues as controversial as immigration and trade. A Danish plan would allow seven protesting nations to block Council decisions. It should be considered.
Birmingham must show Europe the EC is ready for a full and open discussion on a matter as profound as a new federal structure.