Europe On Top of The World

November 27, 1990|By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK — New York. WHAT MAKES twice as much money as Japan and may live better than the United States? That's easy; the answer is Europe.

These are thrilling times in what we have always called the Old World. Europe was old because America was new, but the name stuck because Europe and Europeans have always had trouble with the new, trouble with change.

''You know the difference between them and us?'' said an American businessman frustrated after a long day of negotiations with French bankers. ''In America you can do anything that isn't written down. Here they can do only what's written down.''

That was seven years ago during the last days of ''Eurobabble,'' when you could spend all your time going from one conference to another discussing the inevitable decline of Europe under assault from giants, from the United States and Japan. One theory then was that the whole continent -- all castles and old masters -- was becoming an adult amusement park for the Americans and the Japanese.

''The cutting edge, the cutting edge,'' said one European at dinner when I lived in Paris then. ''All you Americans talk about is cutting. What's wrong with polishing?''

Nothing at all, really. America, on the edge of choking itself to death on its own air pollution or on the edge of sacrificing its young men in Arabian deserts in the name of cheap gasoline, could benefit greatly from the polished old technology of France's high-speed trains.

Now it is Europe that seems new, willing to risk and willing to change, and America that seems determined to preserve the old ways, particularly that fabulous invalid NATO, the unbelievably expensive device Americans used to run Europe and win the Cold War.

Now American and Soviet commanders talk about the old days and the old tanks that are being broken up to comply with the arms limitations signed by the 34 world leaders who gathered in Paris last week to celebrate peace in our time in Europe. But tomorrow will begin the bickering over currencies and agricultural subsidies, and religion and language, the kind of issues Europeans have sometimes managed to escalate into world war.

Many of those insanities were over which country a man could claim as his own. That phase of European history, one hopes, is almost over now. (Almost; such disputes could wreck Yugoslavia -- and the Soviet Union.) Now the troubles could come over who can claim the many benefits of being European.

The Warsaw Pact countries, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the rest, are all part of ''Europe'' again. Or are they? And if they are, will they corrode and rust the polished prosperity of Western Europe with their ancient technologies and numbed, lazy workers?

Carrying the atrophied economies of Eastern Europe is the first and greatest short-term crisis that could tip the new Europe into bad old ways. There is no force on earth short of prosperity at home or an occupying army that will stop the poor of the Eastern countries from celebrating their new Europeanness by voting with their feet -- looking for work and the good life in what we called Western Europe.

The second crisis will come in the Mediterranean countries, in Spain and France particularly, where the Moslems of North Africa, who learned European ways in colonial times, will push north, seeking a share of Western prosperity.

''Europe'' as a new world idea has spread so far that the first three leaders in the official left-to-right photograph of summit leaders were Turgut Ozal of Turkey, commander-in-chief of the largest land army in NATO; George Bush of the United States, whose citizens have been contributing about one out of six of their tax dollars to NATO; and Mauno Koivisto of Finland, the country Europeans were warned they would be like if the Soviets prevailed. At the other end of the row was Margaret Thatcher of England, who says what she doesn't want England to be like is Europe.

And there could be a third crisis of desperate refugees fleeing into the middle of Europe from civil war and, perhaps, famine if the Soviet Union breaks up into its European and Asian parts.

This is the best of times in Europe, but Dickens wrote the same of the end of the 18th century -- and then said that it was the worst of times. The dangers are the same as Europe changes again as the centuries turn.

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