Europe's Leaders Learn to Listen to the People

December 20, 1992|By EDUARDO CUE

EDINBURGH — Edinburgh.--The long-awaited birth of a unified Europe failed to take place in 1992, and by the end of the year the leaders of the European Community were using forceps in a frenzied effort to try to save their once promising baby.

In retrospect, it was obviously too much to expect 12 historically and culturally divergent nations that have spent much of their history plotting and fighting against each other to smoothly create a single currency and establish a common foreign and defense policy, as called for in the Maastricht Treaty on European unity.

The Community was able to forge a barrier-free market that will create the world's largest trade zone on January 1 without much difficulty, but the birth pains associated with political and economic unity proved to be too much to bear.

After four decades of increasingly important steps leading to cooperation in numerous areas, European leaders developed a false sense of security, certain that their people would follow them without question in establishing a confederal or even a federal state. In the process, the politicians who developed the vast plans behind tightly sealed doors forgot the weight history and tradition play in European politics.

''For too long a time, European issues were treated behind a thick wall of glass,'' French European Affairs Commissioner Elizabeth Guigou, who seems to have learned from the events of the year, admitted recently. ''Europe became an abstract and distant idea. We explained the sense of this construction less and less, taking for granted that the public's adherence had been definitely acquired.''

Others speak of a ''European aristocracy'' composed of leading politicians, technocrats and journalists who, living in a cocoon and speaking a coded language among themselves, gradually forgot the need to explain their project for a politically united continent in simple, understandable terms.

For many years only former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher railed against the bureaucracy in Brussels and what she believed was the creation of a centralized state far from peo- ple's everyday concerns. Her name was rarely mentioned, but many of her arguments were picked up during the past year by opponents to Maastricht in Denmark, France, Germany and elsewhere.

''The fathers of Europe conceived the construction of the Community as a sort of plot to avoid all risk of failure,'' confesses a long-time observer in Brussels. ''We were somehow reassured by not having to constantly explain what we were doing and which was not always exactly ethical.''

But by the time the Community's leaders held their year-end summit in this lovely Scottish city last week, the reality of their failure was as harsh as the winter wind blowing off the Firth of Forth.

While politicians talked about developing a common foreign and defense policy, a violent racial and ethnic war raged unabated in the Balkans. With a deepening recession, the European Monetary System came close to collapsing as the British pound and the Italian lira were forced to withdraw from the exchange-rate mechanism responsible for maintaining stability among currencies. As hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the war in the former Yugoslavia and economic chaos in the former Soviet Union, racial attacks multiplied in Germany, where many of them settled.

''We dreamed of another kind of 1992,'' Jacques Delors, the President of the European Commission, said shortly before the Edinburgh summit.

Indeed, 1992 was supposed to be the year when the Maastricht Treaty, approved with great fanfare just one year ago, would be easily, even automatically, ratified by the member states. In time, Maastricht would create a politically and economically united continent finally capable of competing against the United States and Japan. European countries would cooperate in areas ranging from medical research and environmental protection to law enforcement.

The only dark spot in this idyllic picture was the British, but a special clause written into the treaty allowing London not to participate in the most important aspects of this vast, marvelous project had taken care of the problem.

Then came the day last June when Danish voters narrowly rejected the treaty in a referendum. Key European leaders, led

by President Francois Mitterrand of France and

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, at first tried to ignore the vote. The great countries of Europe, they argued, were not about to allow a small nation of 5 million people to stop the locomotive of unity and progress.

''What cannot be done with 12 countries will be done with 11,'' Mr. Mitterrand said at the time. Conveniently forgotten was the rule requiring that amendments to the Treaty of Rome establishing the Community in 1957 be approved unanimously.

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