A Vision Is Fulfilled, And Europe . . . Yawns

November 28, 1993|By HAL PIPER

European union officially exists, if only on paper. The Maastricht Treaty on political and monetary union came into force Nov. 1. Curiously, there was embarrassed silence where there should have been brass bands, popping champagne corks and triumphal orotundity.

Why? This, after all, is the fulfillment of a vision that goes back nearly half a century, to the post-World War II determination that the European states should be linked so tightly that nationalist rivalries could never again lead them into war. Could any of those early visionaries have imagined that by 1993 a single market would govern the production and sales of goods and services from Portugal to Denmark, from Ireland to Greece?

Yet the words "European union" continue to be spoken with ironic diffidence, like "Baltimore Bombers" or "Kingdom of God," as though they represented a pious hope rather than a present reality.

A funny thing happened to Europe on the way to European union -- the wall came a-tumblin' down. It was four years ago this month that East Berliners and West Berliners danced and exchanged kisses and beer and poked holes in the Berlin Wall, while East German border guards impotently watched from their watchtowers. Wallflowers at the wall, they had no orders to shoot, and so the Cold War ended not with a bang or a whimper, but with a party.

Everybody said it was historic, yet nothing much changed. The Eurocrats -- the European bureaucrats -- kept having meetings and setting deadlines: a single market for goods and services, a single European passport and European currency, a common foreign and defense policy, and so on.

These are no empty gestures. Today a German lawyer, say, may open an office in Paris or Rome on the same terms as a French or Italian lawyer. He may vote in local elections, or even run for office. Any European Community citizen, traveling abroad, may get help from the consulate of any EC member country. EC citizens are waved through passport and customs checks in European airports -- although they do have to show national passports, contrary to original plans.

Yet a United States of Europe this is not. A droll joke is embedded in the shiny new treaty on European union: "A common foreign and security policy is hereby established." Ho, ho. On Yugoslavia, for example, the common policy is to have no policy.

The joke is that European union consists of minutiae. Everything important has been finessed -- or has blown up in European faces like an exploding cigar. Currency speculators broke up the exchange rate mechanism. The single market is riddled with special-interest exceptions. Britain and Denmark adhere to only such parts of the treaty as they choose. Some commentators have gone so far as to say the whole European enterprise is a fraud, an artifact of the Cold War.

It is certainly true that conditions have changed -- in Europe and ++ in all the world. The assumptions that dictated the logic of the Common Market are now mostly outdated -- just as the truly difficult decisions must be faced. Here are five ways the world has changed since the wall came a-tumblin' down:

* First, obviously, there's no more Soviet Union. If, as Samuel Johnson said, the prospect of hanging concentrates the mind, the Moscow hangman was the mind-concentrator that drove the European countries into military alliance with the United States and economic cooperation with each other. Now there is no hostile superpower to the east, only a truncated rump state, Russia, with its own problems, plus 15 or 20 ex-satellites or Soviet successor states, all of which want to join the European Community.

* Point two is the resurgence of nationalism, most obviously in Yugoslavia, but throughout Eastern Europe and potentially in the West as well. Europe was supposed to transcend nationalist passions, subsuming them into the larger community.

* Third is the giant economic leap being made by many Third World countries. The Third World, as an aggregate, had a 6 percent economic growth rate last year, as compared with a combined 2 percent for the United States, Western Europe and Japan. China's growth rate will be about 13 percent this year; Americans were pleased last month when ours hit 2.8 percent. These booming economies are both new markets and new competitors for Europe.

* The fourth new fact since the wall came a-tumblin' down is the amazing weakness of Western governments. President Clinton takes quite a beating in the press, but he is the strongest leader in the Western world. Prime Minister John Major in Britain and Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Germany are scraping bottom in the polls. President Francois Mitterrand in France is emasculated by a conservative prime minister. Japan and Italy are reinventing their national politics, and Canada's ruling party has just suffered the most catastrophic repudiation in the world history of democratic politics, plunging from a comfortable parliamentary majority of 155 seats to just two.

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