Step by unprecedented step Western Europe moves toward union. Though American headlines more often focus on disagreements among the 12 member-states of the European Community and failures in collaboration among them, actual developments testify to the magnetic power of the idea of Europe -- for ''the 12,'' and for the rest of Europe as well.
Several recent events show that European peoples who have fought and died to preserve their independence and sovereignty -- from each other -- are now ready to forgo or ''transfer'' that sovereignty to a supra-national European entity still being created.
The most important next step toward European union is ratification of the agreements forged last December at Maastricht.
The new Europe is endowed in the Maastricht Treaty with attributes of citizenship and sovereignty previously associated only with nation-states. Therefore, more than any previous step, the Maastricht Treaty defines the construction of Europe as a project in nation building.
The ratification process of the treaty constitutes the clearest test yet of popular acceptance of European union on the EC model. Since the Community is still a union of sovereign states, that process is determined by the constitution and government of each member-state. France, Britain and most other countries submitted the treaty to their parliaments. In Denmark a popular referendum on the treaty is scheduled for next Tuesday.
In all important decisions of the EC, unanimity is required for adoption. If, therefore, one member-state fails to ratify the treaty, it must be renegotiated and resubmitted to all members. The process is thus a difficult but absolutely crucial step in the march toward a Europe united economically, monetarily and around a common foreign and defense policy.
It was appropriate that France, which has played so central a role in the construction of the EC, should take the first formal steps toward ratification.
With the clarity for which French intellectual life is justly famous, the debate in the National Assembly focused on the relations between nationality and citizenship, identity, sovereignty and democracy. President Francois Mitterrand himself explained how to be simultaneously ''a patriot'' and a ''European.'' He explained how it was possible to say simultaneously ''France is our country; Europe is our future.'' The statement parallels Chancellor Helmut Kohl's assertion: ''My home is the Rhineland, my country is Germany, my future is Europe.''
The National Assembly majority in favor of ratification was unexpectedly large and the opposition unexpectedly divided and weak. President Mitterrand's personal leadership helped. Broad multipartisan support guaranteed success.
The victory for the Maastricht Treaty in France was complemented by growing evidence of a favorable majority in the British Conservative Party and therefore in the British Parliament, in spite of Margaret Thatcher's frontal attack on the pace of European integration and the goal of a federal Europe. Mrs. Thatcher's plea for a ''loose-knit decentralized free-market Europe of sovereign states'' has apparently failed to rally enough opposition to prevent ratification in Britain.
There is much other evidence elsewhere of new momentum toward European union. The German minister of defense, Volker Ruehe, has announced Franco-German plans to proceed with the establishment of a European military force. Switzerland, which has guarded its independence and neutrality with special ferocity, has decided that it will seek membership in the EC (as well as in the IMF and the World Bank). President Boris Yeltsin has raised questions about eventual Russian affiliation with the European Community.
European union seems now to be an idea whose time has come. Even though public opinion polls show that a majority of Danes oppose ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, rejection would not be fatal. If the Danes vote against the treaty, there will be time to reconsider whether -- in EC jargon -- it would be better to ''widen'' the European Community before ''deepening'' it, that is, to accept new members before further integrating relations among the 12.
In any case, there will be a unified Europe that stretches from the Urals to the Atlantic by the end of this century because so many people are now persuaded that it is possible to be both patriots and Europeans. The prospect poses important, possibly negative, implications for the United States. This new Europe will be a -- perhaps the -- major piece in a new world order.
Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.