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Europeans meet today to try to patch up drive toward unity

The worried and embarrassed leaders of the 12 European Community states are meeting in Birmingham, England, today at the urgent invitation issued three weeks ago by British Prime Minister John Major to save their ship from sinking.

If they can do it with words, fine. But it now transpires that nothing concrete is likely to be agreed upon. Both the British hosts and their continental guests have conceded that decisions will be put off to the regular EC summit in December at Edinburgh.

The most likely outcome in Birmingham is some kind of statement designed to assure all the folks back home that the proposed economic and political union will not take away their national identities or allow their lives to be governed by faceless bureaucrats at EC headquarters in Brussels.

After meeting all day, the 12 national leaders will, after all, have to say something _ whether they call it a declaration, communique or a simple statement of conclusions.

Whatever they call it, it will try to spell out that national governments come first, that decisions should be made out in the open and that the proposed union spelled out in the union treaty be more democratic.

This, they hope, will help Major get the treaty through the House of Commons, before the year's end if possible.

Six other nations have to ratify it too, but there is little doubt about them, beginning with the all-important Germany. This is mainly because there will be no referendums like the one in France where the treaty just squeaked through last month.

That referendum, and the financial crisis it provoked in Europe, are the reasons for today's meeting. Major was forced to devalue the pound, Italy devalued the lira and both withdrew from the European Monetary System intended to be the forerunner of a European Central bank presiding over a single European currency.

Despite the narrow French "yes" to the union treaty signed last December in the Dutch city of Maastricht, things then suddenly seemed to be coming apart. Today's meeting will give the leaders a chance to say it ain't so if they patch up their quarrels behind closed doors at the International Convention Center on Broad Street, Birmingham.

Probably the main issue they will talk about is what to do about the small state of Denmark, whose voters rejected the treaty by fewer than 40,000 votes in June and put the cat among the pigeons. Things have not been the same since.

Danish Prime Minister Poul Schlueter will be giving the other leaders his ideas today on how to get around the Danish "no" given the fact that the other leaders still insist that the treaty cannot be renegotiated.

They, however, face the other fact that the treaty can't legally come into force until all 12 members ratify it, Denmark included.

What the Danes want is some opt out from some of the treaty provisions, including those for a common defense and single currency. But how to do that without opening the door to an "a la carte" or "two-speed" Europe that most European leaders profess to abhor?

Whatever happens to the union treaty, an EC single market of 340-million consumers is scheduled to come into force at the first of the year. But without the treaty, some fear that it and the EC itself will begin to wither.

One of the main discussions in Birmingham will be over the big word "subsidiarity," which seems to mean letting the national governments first do what they do best and the European Community or Union do the rest.

Some want to draw up an agreed list of who does what, but Jacques Delors, the head of the EC administration in Brussels, put tongue in cheek Wednesday to offer a prize of 200,000 ECUs (European Currency Units totaling $262,000) to anyone who could come up with a one-page definition of subsidiarity that everyone could understand.

The other main issues will be how to make the community more democratic and its decisions more open and how to get Britain and Italy back into the European Monetary System.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has no more than a fat chance in his efforts to get others to take more of the refugees from the fighting in what was Yugoslavia.

And in coming forth with new proposals in an attempt to get agreement on a new world trade accord before the U.S. elections, President Bush has put another cat among the pigeons and warned European leaders it was now up to them to compromise.

French President Francois Mitterrand will again insist the others turn down any such compromise on lowering EC subsidies to French farmers, which is still the main obstacle to a pact that has been under negotiation for the past six years. Politically no French government could agree.

Most of the leaders meeting are vulnerable.

Major, the host as this semester's EC president, faces strong opposition to the Maastricht treaty in his own Conservative Party. After more than 10 years in office, Mitterrand and Kohl have never been less popular.

Italy is simply falling apart despite the efforts of Prime Minister Giuliano Amato to raise taxes. Even Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez faces major criticism for failing to call a referendum on European union.

The leaders may succeed in patching up some past quarrels today, including that between Britain and Germany. While little new is expected today, stay tuned, because the future of European union may still be decided this year.