Union Is at Hand, but a Somber Mood Prevails in Maastricht EC SUMMIT

Article excerpt

IT may be like pulling teeth, but the European Community will resolve enough of its internal differences to approve a new treaty on economic and political integration at its summit here this week.

That was the reigning consensus as leaders of the EC's 12 member states gathered here yesterday for at least two days of difficult bargaining and compromise on the half dozen points that separate them from their goal of an "ever-closer union."

The winter sun was shining and the EC's flag of 12 gold stars on a crisp blue field was fluttering all around this city on the Maas River. But that could not change the summit's somber, determined mood.

"There is no joy here," said Dick Istha, chief spokesman for Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van den Broek, whose country holds the Community's six-month revolving presidency and is the summit host. "There will be an agreement, because not to have it would be too great a setback. But it will come at the last minute, with everyone holding out for his own interests."

With an economic treaty closest to agreement, EC leaders took up that issue first. An advanced draft treaty on economic and monetary union was referred back to finance ministers for fine-tuning at the end of the morning, but a consensus was forming around a two-stage plan that would lead to a single currency for at least a majority of countries no later than 1999.

"It is clear that a large majority {of countries} see that Maastricht is the beginning of a process of irreversibility," said Dutch Foreign Minister Wim Kok. But Britain's insistence that the treaty include an "opt-out" clause for countries not wishing to go along with monetary union was still a point of contention.

Under the two-stage plan being discussed, at least seven countries would have to meet a set of rigorous economic "convergence" criteria for the move to a central bank and single currency, perhaps by 1996. The criteria would include tight fluctuation bands for inflation, public debts and deficits, and interest rates. …