BRUSSELS -- Western Europe's political leaders will meet today and tomorrow to try to forge their diverse nations into a unified continent that could ultimately rival the United States in diplomatic as well as economic might.
A "United States of Europe," if one is to develop at all, remains years or probably decades away. The immediate goals are more modest: to cement Western Europe's economic union, which began in earnest in the mid-1980s, and to support it with "political union" -- a mechanism for developing common policies in such areas as foreign relations and even defense.
"In unity there is strength" -- that old American motto is guiding those who would be the founders of tomorrow's Europe. "European countries feel they cannot make it economically or politically on their own," says Dominique Moisi, associate director of the French Institute of International Affairs.
When the heads of the 12 European Community nations gather in the Dutch town of Maastricht, they will consider proposals to form a union that would arguably be more intimate than any ever before forged voluntarily by sovereign nations.
On the economic side, the leaders may set the terms for replacing the British pound, the German mark, the French franc and nine other national currencies with a common "European currency unit" by the end of the decade.
Breathtaking in scope, the European agenda has serious implications for the United States. A unified Western Europe, with a population bigger than the United States' and an economy almost as big, looms not only as an economic rival but also as an equal player on the world diplomatic stage.
"Americans are going to have to realize that they're going to have to deal with a major, mature partner," says Stanley Crossick, a British lawyer.
With the sudden demise of communism, Western Europe's leaders also see a unique opportunity to spread their economic and political gospel throughout their region.
Europe's most tireless unifiers, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand, predict darkly that an inability to make progress at Maastricht would send Europe hurtling back into the abyss of national rivalries that bred two world wars this century.
Such dire prophecies are probably designed mostly to coax the more reluctant Europeans into line. Before the EC leaders can map out the road to unity, they will have to convince one of their major partners, Britain, that the goal is worth reaching.
Still, the EC is already well into its drive to create a single economic market by the end of 1992, with free movement of goods, services, money and people across national borders.
With such a vast agenda, the leaders at Maastricht seem sure to engage in a lot of horse-trading. They have left open the possibility of meeting shortly before Christmas if the talks today and tomorrow do not give them enough time.