Begin by Transforming the Facts

May 19, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Prague -- The West Europeans continue to bar the ex-Communist countries from the European Union for several bad or arguable reasons. A good reason exists, however, one that too many of the East Europeans -- and perhaps even West Europeans -- seem not to understand.

''Europe'' began in reconciliation and it is about reconciliation. The proposal for a Franco-German coal and steel community, drafted by Jean Monnet and his colleagues in April 1950, rested on the belief that France and Germany had to be at peace for Europe to be at peace, but, given three wars in 70 years, good intentions counted for nothing. Monnet wrote: ''We must change the context by transforming the basic facts.''

The history of eastern and Balkan Europe during the same period was equally of war and violence, inspired by ethnic hatred and romantic nationalism. If that now is to change, facts must be changed. This is the possibility offered to the ex-Communist nations by membership in the European Union.

The rampart to be breached is not national sovereignty; what each of these nations must overcome is affirming its identity through an uncompromising belief that, as a nation or as a ''race,'' it is separate from and superior to others in the region. It is necessary to change that if these peoples are to be spared Yugoslavia's fate.

Until now all too many in east-central, eastern and southeastern Europe seem to have understood the end of communism as an opportunity to reanimate the national and ethnic claims and hostilities of the past. They seem to find reassurance in this, as restoring an order essential to their identity. People seem to find in it a perverse liberation: freedom to exclude Gypsies, revive a conspiratorial anti-Semitism even in the absence of Jews, oppress national minorities and revindicate ancient frontiers. All of this provides a form of national authentication -- a fateful one.

This writer has just spent four days with officials and intellectualsfrom several of the eastern countries, discussing central and eastern European relations with the West. Except for Vaclav Havel, the president of the Czech Republic, and Poland's Bronislaw Geremek -- another figure of moral leadership in the anti-communist resistance of the 1970s and 1980s -- I heard scarcely a word about reconciliation among the peoples of this region.

Old resentments, old territorial claims, old ethnic stereotypes were implicitly or even explicitly expressed. The ethnic nationalism of the region -- described by the great 19th-century liberal historian Lord Acton as ''a retrograde step in history'' -- seems taken for granted as the inevitable or even essential quality in the political identity of these peoples.

The Central and East European survivors of communism have untilnow run into economic and political walls in their attempts to join ''Europe.'' West Europe's Union is preoccupied with expanding from 12 to 16 western members. It is threatened economically by eastern Europe's competitive advantage of low wages. Steel and textile manufacturers, shipbuilders and miners the West, and their unions, have successfully lobbied against East European competition.

The West has been lavish with advice on how the ex- Communist societies should be turned into market economies, but when the latter have taken that advice their exports have been unwelcome. West European tariffs today are in some cases higher than during the Cold War.

But the unstated barrier to the unification of eastern with western Europe is moral and intellectual. The crucial distinction today is between those Europeans who believe in ethnic politics, ethnic exclusion and an intolerant nationalism and those who understand that the members of a common European civilization owe themselves and each other a commitment to national reconciliation, and to a liberal and secular politics in which citizenship is a political quality and nationality is cultural, and the two are understood to be separate.

This is an essential distinction. If the East European and Balkan ,, nations wish to be members of ''Europe,'' they must understand that the challenge is to reconcile their nations, as it was in Western Europe in the 1940s and early 1950s.

If they are not prepared to change in that respect, they automatically exclude themselves from a changed Europe.

This has not been made plain to them by the West Europeans. Perhaps the problem is not yet even fully grasped in Western Europe, or in the United States. The western countries owe greater support to economic reform in the east, certainly, but the eastern countries have to understand that the indispensable reform is one of political morality and national assumption.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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