Doubt on 'Europe' Spreads to France Early Elections Test Idea of Unified Continent

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The decisive moment for European unity was supposed to be a year from now, when Europe's politicians decide which nations meet the criteria to join a single currency, called the euro.

But the battle to convince Europe's voters that the euro is still worth the price is now clearly engaged. On April 21, French President Jacques Chirac moved up France's national election by 11 months, citing the need for a new majority with the strength and the mandate to face the difficult reforms ahead. Legislative elections, expected in March 1998, will now take place May 25, with a runoff vote June 1.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who doesn't have the option to change his country's election date, took a strong symbolic step by announcing this month that he will run for reelection in October 1998 and that European unity will be at the center of his campaign. Even in Britain, where on paper both major parties have identical positions on European monetary unity - wait and see - Europe has taken center stage in the coming May 1 vote. In a major foreign policy speech April 21, "New Labour" candidate Tony Blair criticized his Conservative Party opponents for a "narrow, crabbed nationalism" and called a policy of "perpetual isolation" from Europe "misguided." But a new Conservative campaign poster shows Mr. Blair as a puppet on the lap of Mr. Kohl. The goal: a super-currency At stake for Europe is whether the single-currency plan can weather the political costs needed to secure it. The plan for monetary union was to have launched Europe as an economic superpower, with a single currency to rival the dollar and yen. But unemployment has remained in double digits, growth is sluggish, and much deeper budget cuts will be needed to qualify most states by 1999. "To Europe's man in the street, monetary union is associated with hardship, giving up the post-World War II safety net and job security. For about 60 percent of Europeans, this is not acceptable," says J. Paul Horne, senior economist for Smith Barney in Paris. "The good news for Europe is that Britain will likely come out of this election with a more Euro-reasonable government, and that Europe's leading statesman and politician {Kohl} is taking charge of German coalition politics in 1998. Chirac has taken a risky course, but it will give the French a very clear choice between getting on with monetary union or trying to get by in the old-fashioned way, which it can no longer afford." Currently, only six of the 15 members of the European Union have public deficits below the ceiling of 3 percent of gross national product: Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Germany and France, the architects of the monetary-union plan, are currently running deficits of 3.9 percent and 4.1 percent. Both will need deep budget cuts to make the standard, and until this week, both would have had to make them in an election year. …