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Getting Europe Back on Track Is No Easy Task

LONDON -- Neither Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor, nor Vladimir Meciar, the Slovak prime minister, claims to be an orator of the first rank. Still, both men would no doubt hate to go down in history as dull public speakers. Occasionally, therefore, they give their speeches a new lick of rhetorical point; and at the moment, their favorite images seem to be drawn from the world of the railroad.

"Slovakia is like a train with 5. 3 million passengers going downhill with no brakes", Meciar observed recently, after thousands of trade unionists staged anti-government protests, his parliamentary majority disappeared and his popularity rating sank to a new low. For Kohl, however, rail transportation inspires noble and exciting thoughts. After Denmark voted for the Maastricht treaty on European union, reversing last year's "no" vote. Kohl remarked: "The European train will travel on without any stops".

Who is aboard Kohl's train? Germany, France, the Benelux countries, Britain, Ireland Denmark, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece. Kohl notwithstanding, the train will pause soon and pick up Austria, Sweden and Finland. But not all passengers are traveling in the same compartment. Britain and Denmark have secured the right not to take part in certain ventures, such as a common European currency. The European Monetary System, which aims to pave the way to monetary union by setting exchange rates for national currencies, has been rocked by the departure of the British pound and the Italian lira and by devaluations of the Irish punt, the Spanish peseta and the Portuguese escudo. The Greek drachma has never been part of the system.

There are, in fact, grave doubts about which countries, if any, can meet the strict Maastricht criteria on inflation, interest rates, budget deficits and government debt to qualify for membership in the currency union. That is because much of Western Europe is in recession. More and more, politicians are asking whether it might be more useful to concentrate on practical issues such as putting millions of unemployed people back to work. One thing is certain: Currency union will not happen by 1997, as envisaged in Maastricht. If it happens by 1999, the second deadline mentioned in the treaty, it will not be a full union but a kind of Deutschemark bloc linking Germany, France and the Benelux countries.

This means that the passengers on the European train are far from united about who should drive it and where it is going. It also means that people anxious to climb aboard, such as the Poles, Czechs and Hungarians, are being told: "Sorry, the doors are closed until we finish our poker game inside". That is mean, blind and a recipe for derailment.

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