Can the 12 members of European Community really turn themselves into a single economic unit like the United States, with a single currency and a single central bank comparable to its powerful Federal Reserve Board? That has been European Community President Jacques Delors' special dream.
Against skepticism in this country, the drive for integration -- and especially for the monetary-union component -- had achieved strong momentum. Then two cosmic events intervened to interfere with Delors' carefully crafted timetable.
First the end to the Cold War brought upheaval in Eastern Europe accompanied by unexpected and swift reunification of the two Germanys. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has been preoccupied with his domestic agenda and the need he perceives to cement relations with other countries to the East, especially the Soviet Union. German central bank president Karl Otto Poehl and Finance Minister Theo Waigel have been strongly opposed to setting any starting date for Delors' monetary union.
On top of German preoccupation with its internal problems, there came Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. It triggered skyrocketing oil prices, plunging stock markets and worry that recession may replace a period of resurgent economic growth.
At a seminar a few weeks ago in Paris, Delors couldn't hide his exasperation with Kohl. "What do the Germans want? I keep asking myself," Delors exploded. But last week Kohl recommended 1994 as a starting point for the monetary union, a specific commitment that Delors seized on as carrying "great political significance." By picking a specific, if delayed, starting date, Kohl overruled Poehl and Waigel and at least kept the monetary union proposal alive.
Yet some skeptics question whether the European Economic Community will ever evolve a common policy beyond strictly trade and tariff issues. There is little doubt that the Gulf crisis caught the community flatfooted. On the question of a military and foreign-policy stance, the EC exhibited a disturbing disunity and disarray.
What Delors planned 18 months ago (and thought was agreed) was a monetary union in three stages. The first, already in place as of July 1, required greater coordination of monetary policies among the existing central banks. The second stage, to begin Jan. 1, 1993, called for convertibility of all currencies and creation of a European Central bank with powers like the Federal Reserve. The third stage -- at a time not set -- would see the bank in full control. As Poehl put it, it would of necessity have "the monopoly of money creation."
Delors visualizes a common currency managed by a Europe-wide central bank as the engine for stable purchasing power. He claims it would boost the community's output by a solid 5 percent a year along with sizable reductions in interest rates. But since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Delors strategy has split the community down the middle. Opposition has grown in various Western European capitals -- not just in London, where Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher resists setting any date until the full implications of monetary union are spelled out. With one of the higher inflation rates in Europe, Thatcher fears that monetary union could force her country into an economic crunch.
France, on the other hand, leads the pro-monetary union bloc, because old socialist Mitterrand is now a devotee of German economic discipline. A recent visitor to French central bank governor Jacques deLarosiere asked why he is so eager to give up his independence in order to become part of a European central bank where he would not be the boss. DeLarosiere's revealing answer: "Today, I am the governor of a central bank who has decided, along with his nation, to follow fully the German monetary policy without voting on it. At least, as part of a European central bank, I'll have a vote."
Inflation rates in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and Ireland are low and close together (3.0 percent to 4.2 percent). But that's not true of Spain, Italy, England, Portugal, and Greece (6.1 percent to 21 percent). To try to establish common, fixed exchange rates while such a spread exists could trigger inflation in the stronger countries or a serious deflation in the weaker ones.
To be sure, if hopes for a negotiated peace with Saddam intensify, then oil prices will drop even faster than they have this week -- and support for a reasonably prompt monetary union could widen. Still a wide disparity among the European economies will remain even in a post-crisis period.
Kohl's compromise proposal of a year's delay, originally suggested by Spain, still must be approved Oct. 27-28 at a European summit in Rome. If it is, Delors will seek ratification of the entire economic-integration project and agreement to transfer political power from the dozen separate European states to the European Parliament at two later Rome conferences in December.
But the squabbling on the degree to which the sovereign states of Europe will surrender power to an all-powerful European "Federal Reserve" is far from over.