The new Europe is a collection of squabbling relatives

Flora Lewis

November 29, 1990|By Flora Lewis

PRAGUE — THE NEW partition threatening Europe is not just between rich and poor, comfortable and desperate. It is also between countries that have learned to pool some sovereignty, for mutual benefit, and those determined to assert sovereign separatism.

These new East-West issues are linked, though a lot of people in the East don't yet see it. They are too busy insisting on national rights, to the point where a Western leader warned against the risk of a new "fragmented Europe of tribal states."

Not everybody in the West sees it either, although Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's replacement will mean Britain can at last take part in organizing a new economic and political Europe instead of fighting it off.

Without the British to hide behind, French reservations will become more evident. It is a deep wrench for a proud old nation to admit it must cede more of its power and independence to gain influence, prosperity and security. But the French realize they have no choice.

Bonn seeks to reassure its neighbors with the slogan that it wants "not a German Europe, but a European Germany," a quote from Thomas Mann. There will be one or the other, and it is up to the rest of the West Europeans to help provide the framework that makes the second possible.

They are well on their way in their part of the continent. Italy's ebullient foreign minister, Gianni di Michelis, told Rome's Institute for International Affairs last week that he now realizes his country's relatively weak nationalistic feelings are not a handicap, as it long supposed. "Now our poor French friends with their strong nationalism have a disadvantage. It's no problem for us," he said with gleeful confidence that real consolidation is coming.

Things are very different to the east. The new democracies are elbowing each other mercilessly to get to the head of the queue for aid and embrace by the European Community. Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union are on the verge of breaking up in hostile bits and pieces.

Nationalism is again the byword, revived with searing intensity. That came through vividly at an Institute for East-West Security Studies conference inaugurating its handsome new European center in a Baroque castle near here. Croats and Slovenes, Ukrainians and Byelorussians, Slovaks, Poles, Russians and others voiced their fears and grievances. "You have to get sovereignty before you can give it up," said one. "The nation has to be the basis for democracy," said another.

It is true that to achieve self-government there has to be a definition of just which people constitute a "self." But it isn't at all evident that the kind of nationalism rising in the East, with its undertones of jealousy, rivalry and exclusion can support the compromise and tolerance that democracy requires, especially in the ethnic hodgepodge of this part of the world.

Nor is it evident that the emotional nationalistic surge is just the release of resentment after long repression by communists, as another Easterner suggested. It goes much deeper.

But communism, exalting ideology as the cure-all for every social issue, prevented people from working their way through the gradual accommodation that brought West Europeans to see they must live together. It is another historic catch-up task for the East, along with economics, politics, social structure and environment, and one that will block the rest if it isn't managed.

Rita Sussmudh, president of the German Bundestag, implored the high-ranking conference delegates to see that "we are all minorities in the larger Europe we must build." But their peoples now are more sensitive to rousing talk of "us" and "them." There is an ironic time gap between the progress advanced nations are making to accept their interdependence and the drive for purer, more homogeneous sovereignty among the newly freed.

It is understandable, but dangerous. Europeans aren't the only ones tempted to relax. The columnist George Will recently heaped paeans of praise on Thatcher and Charles de Gaulle for stubbornly putting their nations above all else, concluding, "America needs a more Gaullist foreign policy . . . U.S. national sovereignty, U.S. national interests, U.S. national decisions."

He doesn't stop a moment to examine what these interests are, as though they are defined sufficiently by being different from interests of others. That is the way backward, to a depressed, war-torn world. Gloriously lonely is no glory for our time.

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