Europe squabbles our economic
Maastricht, the Netherlands
People go shopping here with three separate purses. One is for Dutch guilders, one for Belgian francs, one for German marks. A few minutes by bus or car is enough to slide across a border almost without knowing it.
Innkeepers such as bustling Josef Pluymen in the nearby tourist resort of Valkenburg cheerfully greet guests in German, French, English, Dutch, or the local Limburger dialect.
On that level, Europe works. On deeper levels though, leaders here for a Council of Ministers summit wrestled with conflicts of basic national interests sharpened by recession, unemployment, high oil prices, and the increasingly urgent need to reach out to poorer countries to the south.
The conflicts challenge the basic budgetary framework of the European Community itself and raise moral issues as well.
To the outsider, the arguments around the summit table seemed wearyingly familiar and dull:
Britain objected to a Community fisheries deal with Canada that would allow West German boats to fish in Canadian waters and let Canada export cheap fish back onto British dinner plates.
West Germany insisted that Britain agree to the deal, or else risk the unraveling of a compromise reached last year by which Britain paid less to the Community budget.
Late March 23 after the first day of the meeting, British Foreign secretary Lord Carrington said that Britain was "considerably disappointed" with other EC members. He said they were not ready to go ahead with a fisheries settlement.He conceded that Bonn was disappointed with London, since Britain was still holding up West German access to Canadian waters.
"I don't think we are very far away from agreement," Lord Carrington said, but clearly the issue of who fishers where was still unsolved.
Member states argued about steel quotas. They objected to low American prices for natural gas, arguing this gave US petrochemical industries unfair advantages in trade.
No one was happy with the annual Community budget spending three-quarters of its $25 billion total on keeping farm prices high, while allocating less than 5 percent each for regional development and aid to the third world.
Compounding the conflicts were domestic uncertainties and worries facing France and the Netherlands (upcoming elections), Britain and Italy (economic difficulties), and others.
This made the states involved less willing to compromise and basic solutions less likely to emerge from Maastricht.
"But these conflicts are not dull really," commented one senior European sourse. "They go to the heart of what the Community is about. They are real issues, involving jobs and money. We need to solve them."
Watching intently and taking part as best it can be the Community's newest member, Greece. Portugal is expected to join in two or three years, with Spain to follow.
The Community of 10 would thus become a community of 12: about 315 million people with a domestic product of more than $2 trillion a year.
The earlier nine will have to devise ways to share resources with the newer and poorer three. Many sources say currently low spending on aid to the third world must increase, though there is as yet no agreed way to do it.
Budget Commissioner Christopher Tugendhat is at the center of a current budget review, ordered as part of last year's compromise on the contributions by Britain.
He wants to reduce the amount of money handed out to farmers, who have created mountains of surplus butter, hills of beef, and lakes of wine while many poorer nations suffer hunger and malnutrition.
Even France, which benefits most from the handouts (called the Common Agricultural Policy or CAP), admits the need for reform. But with President Valery Giscard d'Estaing facing elections inlate April and early May and needing the farm vote, France is unlikely to make any concessions soon.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain came to Maastricht determined to stand firm against a flood of cheap German cod. She also wants to block French boats from unlimited fishing in English coastal waters.
West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was equally committed to pressing for his fishing fleets to be able to fish off Canada. The chancellor met with West German fishermen who staged a demonstration here.
The background was a gloomy report to the European Parliament by Community President Gaston Thorn on the state of Europe's economy.
Europe, he said, is "at the center of a crisis of long duration." Old industries, such as steel, are in decline. Joblessness is high.Oil prices are astronomical.
Deeper still, sources point out the enormoust costs of maintaining Europe's own social welfare network, strained by large numbers of unemployed. When the European Parliament tacked an extra $380 million onto the Community budget last year for social programs, France, West Germany, and Belgium immediately refused to pay. The dispute has gone to the European Court for adjudication.