PRIME Minister John Major has staked his political life on getting the Maastricht European union treaty ratified in Britain, and he did so again last week during a severe struggle in Parliament. In the end, Mr. Major won a victory - but only after an initial defeat. An insurrection by "Euro-skeptics" in his own Conservative Party forced him to call a no-confidence vote in the government. Faced with a choice between being in or out of power, the Tory rebels finally closed ranks and gave Major the votes he
The real story emerged Sunday however, when Major, already lower in approval ratings than any British prime minister since World War I, dropped to below 15 percent. The damage to Major and the Conservatives will be tested Thursday in elections for a vacant Parliament seat in Christchurch. The Tories have held the seat since 1906, but are expected to lose badly. Many in Major's party wonder if he can make it to the next general election.
The situation is characteristic not only of the fog surrounding British politics, but of the increasing muddle about the idea of European unity. Mr. Major's effort at union is surely correct. Some form of closer and more advanced European union is needed, particularly given the possibility of more divisive squabbling and an "each country for itself" attitude in the European Community. But the realities are quite grim. Major may have fallen on his political sword last week - and for a Maastricht treaty th at is already compromised and in need of a complete reworking. The version signed off on by Parliament allows Britain to ignore common currency requirements. The treaty has been amended in other EC states as well. Having first rejected it, the Danes voted in May for Maastricht - but without key provisions about common security and citizenship. The treaty faces both a constitutional test and further alterations, in Germany.
The European economies are not in the period of flush they enjoyed in 1991. At its present rate of inflation, for example, Germany isn't fulfilling basic yearly requirements for a common currency by 1999. Britain is not even in the European Monetary System. Doubts about handing over common security to Brussels have only intensified as a result of European failure in the former Yugoslavia.
It is time to talk about what is already happening in Europe - reworking Maastricht. The question is, can those who staked their all on the rigid 1991 idea of unity provide the vision?