WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Before our eyes, the walls in Europe are going up again. This time, they are being built by the West.
Economic deprivation and hunger, ethnic upheaval and social dislocation are having a dramatic impact on a free Europe in which borders are losing their divisive character. East Europeans and North Africans are beating down the doors to the rich, successful and secure societies of Western Europe. Soon they could be joined by millions of Soviet citizens using their hard-won right to free travel.
The desperation of the migrants has been stirred by fears that Western Europe may close down just as Eastern Europe has opened up. Having been locked up in the East for so long, many now fear being locked out of the West as the European Community consolidates its internal market by creating a common external border.
Halting reforms in the East are in turn further aggravated by a second wave of migration within Eastern Europe itself. Millions of Hungarians spread through Romania, Slovakia, the Ukraine and Serbia are heading home. More than 6 million Romanians live in the Soviet republics of Moldavia and the Ukraine; given continued unrest, they could also be on the move, as could the one million ethnic Turks in Bulgaria. Ethnic conflict within the Soviet Union has turned hundreds of thousands into internal refugees. Czechoslovakia and Poland dread the prospect of at least million refugees from the Soviet Union.
Eastern Europe's Drang nach Westen is in turn being accompanied by an African Drang nach Norden as millions of North Africans come to believe their future lies in a boat ride across the Mediterranean. Never in history has the gap in living standards on the two shores of the Mediterranean been greater.
''The Mediterranean,'' says Italy's foreign minister, Gianni de Michelis, ''is our Rio Grande.'' This is a considerable understatement, for the Mediterranean not only divides rich and poor, it separates the Islamic and Christian worlds. The prospect that Islamic fundamentalism could be exported north has generated considerable anxiety within Western Europe itself.
''Europe's private nightmare,'' declared the British journalist Edward Mortimer, ''is the Sword of Islam. . . . That nightmare in turn conditions Europeans' attitudes to the Muslim communities now established within Europe. These are all too easily seen as the thin end of a wedge, even the vanguard of an invading army.''
The dual influx from the east and the south has governments spooked. Austria has slapped visa requirements on Bulgarians, Romanians, Turks and Poles. There are moves in Germany and Austria to redefine and restrict their liberal asylum laws. Poland is moving more troops to its Soviet border. It has established a special ministry to cope with the dread flood of refugees, and has imposed restrictions on Romanian travelers. Czech, Hungarian and Polish officials have met to discuss ''appropriate measures'' to deal with the expected Soviet influx. Sweden has announced it will ''take no economic and ecological refugees from the Soviet Union.'' Norway has tightened its border and immigration regulations.
Liberal intellectuals, motivated in part by the American experience, are promoting Europe's future as a multicultural, multiracial society. They are joined by economists, who underscore how important a steady influx of foreign labor will become toward the end of the decade to compensate for low birth rates in Western Europe, sustain economic growth and fill dangerous or dirty jobs most West Europeans now refuse to perform.
These arguments could be steamrolled by a strong popular anti-immigrant backlash that has been gathering force. Europe's strongest anti-immigration movement, Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front in France, has won seats in the European Parliament and local assemblies. A similar group in Italy, the Lombard League, also gained in the last elections.
Racist attacks against Moroccan workers in Spain, particularly in Catalonia, are occurring with greater frequency. Austria's right-wing Freedom Party increased its share of the vote in October from 10 percent to 17 percent with a xenophobic campaign and advertisements imploring ''Vienna must not become Chicago.''
Concerted effort will be needed to cope with the consequences of enduring economic, social and ethnic divisions on a freer and open continent. This issue, as none other, is likely to determine the nature of Europe at the turn of the millennium. It is coming at West European officials like a runaway train, yet one bureaucrat's classic response was ''We don't even have position papers to deal with it.''
The Cold War specter of the Soviet army marching toward Western Europe has been replaced by the very real prospect of an army of the destitute and hungry on the move throughout East-Central Europe and a navy of the desperate sailing across the Mediterranean, leading to further polarization of the political process in the West.
Daniel Hamilton, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was deputy director of the Aspen Institute in Berlin from 1982-1990.