WASHINGTON — Washington. -- To appreciate British reluctance to join the rush to a federal Europe, begin by noting how depressingly familiar are many of Europe's current fevers, rivalries and ideas.
The war in what never should have been Yugoslavia has the ferocity of fratricide among people who, their real nationalities having been disregarded, were forced into the bogus brotherhood of an ersatz nation. And Eastern Europe, which extends to the Urals, may have much more violence as winter compounds the suffering attendant upon the implosion of Soviet socialism. Furthermore, all across the continent, hostility toward immigrants is fueling racist politics of an explicit virulence that makes David Duke's seem subliminal.
But perhaps the most dismaying -- because the most irreversible -- facet of the emerging Europe is as bland as bureaucracy. It is bureaucracy, and the soft statism it serves. What is already far advanced is nothing less than a retreat from the values and institutions, hard-won over centuries, of government by consent through representative institutions.
Fanatics for European federalism are, as ''progressives'' often are, prone to making metaphors serve as arguments. There is a steady drizzle of muzzy thoughts about Britain missing the boat, train, bus or other vehicle of history that is ''inevitably'' going ''forward.'' But is movement from popular sovereignty to rule by unelected mandarins ''progress''?
The European Community's manic regulators are meticulously ''harmonizing'' the minutiae of life in the 12 member nations. The EC issues decrees concerning everything from the dimensions of condoms and the making of Camembert cheese (Brussels frowns on the bacteria that makes the cheese what it is) to the standards for toilet-paper holders and the ingredients that give the British sausages called bangers their distinctive sawdust texture. (A London headline: ''Hands Off Our Bangers, We Like Them Lousy.'')
The maddening multiplication of petty edicts (and many not petty, concerning labor relations and other social questions) would be funny, at least from afar, were it not part of the derogation of British parliamentary sovereignty, one of the fountains from which American liberty flowed.
There are continental words for what is being put in place. Germans call it (or did before Hitler gave the word a bad odor) Gleichshaltung, meaning bringing everything and everybody into harmony, as defined by rulers who see the Big Picture. The French tradition of dirigisme (from diriger, to direct) dates from the 17th century: The French were early practitioners of the folly of detailed state intervention in economic affairs.
In fascist Italy ''corporatism'' was the theory that in complex modern societies mere political representation of inarticulate, unguided individuals is unimportant. They should be organized into collectives corresponding to their economic functions (employers groups, trades unions, farmers organizations, etc.), and the collectives should be subordinated to a coordinating (harmonizing) state.
As national sovereignty is leeched away by the international nomenklatura in Brussels, partisans of this process argue for it with the zealots' indifference to logic. They say that the concept of sovereignty is now anachronistic, and that sovereignty is actually strengthened by ''pooling'' it.
They define sovereignty tendentiously as a nation's ability to ''do anything it likes.'' No nation now has (or ever has had) that ability; ergo no nation is (or ever has been) ''really'' sovereign. So why the fuss about the ascendancy of Brussels' unelected regulators?
Next, by semantic sleight-of-hand they say sovereignty is ''really'' a synonym for ''influence on events.'' So Britain, by submerging itself in the European Community, is actually ''deepening'' its sovereignty.
This argument fails because sovereignty means not being subject to the authority of another political entity. But, say Euro-enthusiasts, the European Assembly at Strasbourg will be steadily transformed from an advisory and monitoring body into a full-blown legislature (British membership is 16 percent -- and will be less when new nations join). So popular sovereignty will still exist but in a larger political community.
However, in what sense will it be a ''community''? Noel Malcolm, a Euro-skeptic, wonders, ''Can we imagine a London housewife during a Euro-general election watching the leader of her preferred Euro-party on television -- a Greek, perhaps, making a rousing speech in Greek?''
Americans anxious about competition from a Europe made into an economic colossus can, perhaps, take comfort from the probability that the bland Leviathan now swelling in Brussels, with its atavistic urge to tell people how to live, will suffocate Europe's vitality. Furthermore, regulation will be internecine war carried on by other means. Some members of the EC will impose competitive disadvantages on other members -- as when rich countries impose costly labor and environmental standards on poorer competitors.
Imagine how all this disparagement of sovereignty and celebration of statism seems to those watching in such non-EC, European capitals as Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and Kiev.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.