Despite five years of economic crisis and political divisiveness, prospects that the nine countries of the European Economic Community are at last ready for greater economic and political unity now appear brighter than at any time since Britain joined the EEC back in 1973.
For the EEC, 1973 proved to be a year of short-lived optimism, savagely truncated by the oil crisis and ensuing internecine political strife, as European governments each ran for the nearest economic lifeboat.
Now things are looking up. Modest optimism, both among EEC policy makers and observers, is buttressed by three main argruments:
First, in the perceived absence of American economic leadership, the EEC is making determined moves towards creating its own "European monetary system," mooted by Germany and France as a partial replacement to the doomed Bretton Woods arrangement. Second, the seeds of a new political union could be sown with the first Europe-wide elections in the summer of 1979. Third, negotiations to enlarge the EEC to include Greece, Portugal and Spain are seen as further proof of Europe's new-found dynamism.
But the key factor is considered here to be the European monetary scheme, the brainchild of the EEC's executive president, Roy Jenkins, and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, under whom that country's economic power has gradually been converted into political clout. A decisive European response to the vacuum created by the free-falling dollar is seen here as essential to the EEC's economic recovery.
Officials here say recovery is impossible when the best-laid plans are continually undermined by the divergent performance of European currencies against the dollar and each other.
"Monetary dissaray has created a major complication in our economic recovery efforts," says Viscount Etienne Davignon, the EEC executive who masterminded the Common Market's controversial steel crisis plan and who is widely considered one of the brightest stars in the European political firmament. "Unemployment pressures have created such political pressures that, with a recovery program, the very basis of our political system is under stress," he told the Washington Post.
The breakdown of the dollar-dominated Bretton Woods system thus has led to potentially explosive distortions in economic relationships, particularly between the U.S. and Europe, warned Davignon.
"The American economy is healthier than the average European economy, yet the average European currency is healthier than the U.S. currency," he said.
This "extraordinary paradox" is a permanent worry to European governments facing U.S exports cheapened by a low-slung green back. It also is further proof for Davignon of the monetary dislocation now wracking the world economy. Faced with this, EEC countries, much more dependent on a stable international environment for economic success than is the U.S., now are being forced to act in concert.Davignon says the alternative is the "embryonic European unification gets destroyed by distortions created by changing currently relationships."
At the same time, there are fears here that Europe's monetary system cannot work without U.S. support. Even with the pooling of up to 20 percent of Europe's official reserves - the backbone of the EEC scheme - the Common Market would be hard pushed to keep Europe's weaker currencies in gear with the all-powerful German mark.
If the dollar continues to drop, it will take the pound sterling, the Italian lira and possibly the French franc down with it, warn monetary experts here.
So monetary convergence in Europe appears to stem from a heightened perception of American weakness and yet is also conditioned by it. Absence of U.S. currency leadership, mirrored by the flight from the dollar, is a cause of acute concern here. While, "the USA remains the most powerful country in the world," Davignon also identifies "a degree of reluctance to accept the consequences of being the world's strongest power."
If the European response to the economic troubles at last is showing signs of converging, a more political dimension soon may be added. June 7-10, 1979, are the dates slotted into the EEC calendar for creation of a directly elected European parliament and already political party machines are getting geared up to win the charms of the Common Market's 155 million voters.
Although realists warn against overstating next summer's European elections, leading pundits here say the fact remains that the EEC's national party establishments will be forced to focus on European rather than national issues for the first time in their history.
The resulting 410-member parliament may not have great powers but, sayd Davignon, it should lead to a "regrouping of influence" as found in the U.S. Senate, with majorities which cut across traditional party lines.