BRUSSELS -- Europe's history is littered with noble ideas and broken dreams.
Now there is a new dream: Unity.
Twelve West European nations, among them countries whose differences dragged the world to war twice in this century, have pledged to complete by 1992 what was once dismissed as impossible--an end to frontiers and creation of a single unified marketplace.
If they succeed--and during the past year realists have begun to join dreamers in predicting that they might--the result will reshape the Continent and drastically affect the rest of the world.
U.S. Role Sought
In Washington, the trade aspects of the 1992 reforms are viewed as so pivotal that Secretary of Commerce Robert A. Mosbacher recently shocked Europeans by calling for a direct American role in the process.
"I have advocated a seat at the table at least as an observer," Mosbacher told a Washington audience.
"The European Community's single market may prove to be one of the seminal events of the latter half of the 20th Century," two of the United States' most experienced foreign affairs experts, former Deputy Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher and Deputy Secretary of State-designate Lawrence S. Eagleburger, advised President Bush in a foreign policy analysis.
A unified European Community of Britain, France, West Germany, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, Ireland, Denmark, Portugal and Luxembourg would constitute the world's largest single consumer market with a population a third larger than that of the United States and a trading volume more than twice that of Japan.
For the United States, the Common Market nations collectively constitute a $1-trillion commercial relationship, by far the single largest American international commitment, dwarfing that with Japan.
Should protectionist pressures turn this fast-emerging internal market into a "Fortress Europe," the consequences would be disastrous both for United States and other global traders.
The new momentum propelling the European Community toward its goals has revived the continent's flagging spirits, dissipating the pessimism that paralyzed it through much of the early 1980s.
Collectively, its leaders have discovered, Europe matters.
As bureaucrats struggle to dismantle myriad barriers by 1992, visionaries talk of grander goals: a common European currency, a popularly elected president and, eventually, full political union.
"It's our answer to perestroika and Reaganomics," said Gerhard Fels, head of the Institute for the German Economy in Cologne. "For young people there's an attraction, an enthusiasm about what is happening within the EC."
Community nations have also agreed to draw up a charter of workers' rights and to harmonize health and safety standards. They have earmarked $60 billion by 1993 to cushion the impact of a single market on poor or declining regions.
Vague ideas of European unity floated from the ashes of both world wars, but it was an unassuming French diplomat, Jean Monnet, who gave shape and substance to the present drive.
His vision was a United States of Europe, not of "coalitions between states, but union among people"; and in 1950, Monnet's plan for the war-ravaged French and German coal and steel industries to join in a common market also open to other countries became the precursor to the European Community.
The 1955 treaty establishing the European Community also cemented Franco-German reconciliation, a relationship that remains the pivotal link in the present drive toward European unity.
The original community of six countries now has 12 member states, and the list of those interested grows.
Turkey has formally applied to join; Austria, Sweden and Switzerland, which once rejected membership as compromising their political neutrality, are reviewing their position, while Cyprus, Malta and Morocco have contemplated membership.
Norway Expected to Join
Even Norway, the only country to reject membership (in 1973), is eventually expected to reverse itself and join.
Buoyed by a new international spirit of detente, leaders of community countries have responded to the exhortations of EC Commission President Jacques Delors that achieving the single market by 1992 is "a race . . . which the countries of Europe have to win to survive."
Last year, the commission even calculated the cost of failure: $200 billion per year, up to 7% lost economic growth, 5 million jobs and continued fragmentation.
As economic interests of European Community member states converge, so too does cooperation in other fields.
A structure for political cooperation is already in place and joint stands, most recently in withdrawing all 12 ambassadors from Tehran in response to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death threat against British author Salman Rushdie, make its voice count.
The European Community has invoked limited punitive measures against Libya, Syria and Argentina; it has its own policies on the Middle East and South Africa, and conducts its own dialogue with Moscow.
An emerging concept of European political identity is even visible in news headlines: "Europe pushes U.S. on Arafat"; "Khomeini gets Euro-snub."
More Military Cooperation
Member nations have increased defense cooperation, and those involved in the march toward a more unified Europe believe a greater degree of mutual security interests is also bound to emerge, either within the community framework or in some parallel organization.
"I think it is unavoidable," said Frans Andriessen, EC Commissioner for External Relations, in an interview. "We can't escape a security dimension linked to this integration process."
A stronger, more unified European voice within the Atlantic Alliance at a time when Americans and Europeans appear to be diverging on the ways to meet a changing Soviet threat carries its own implications: roughly half the $300-billion U.S. defense budget is committed to the defense of Western Europe.
Viewed from a distance, the compelling logic of a truly unified European Community would seem to make the 1992 goals a foregone conclusion.
But however strong the commitment to the ideal, the prospect of it becoming one more broken dream, crushed by powerful, divisive national interests remains real.
How, for example, can border controls be eliminated in countries like Britain, an island nation which has traditionally relied on them as a key law enforcement tool? Where is the common ground for an automobile sales tax that currently ranges from 12% in Luxembourg to 200% in Denmark?
How is it possible, skeptics ask, to take a European unity movement seriously when tiny Belgium, a country whose population is smaller than that of New York City, remains hopelessly divided by a chronic Flemish-Walloon rivalry?
Even the shape and depth of European unity is disputed.
As French President Francois Mitterrand echoes Monnet's dream of a United States of Europe, Britain's Margaret Thatcher exudes suspicion and warns of "a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels".
Amid allegations of massive fraud swirling around the European Community's large farm subsidy program, the director-general of Britain's Institute of Directors, John Hoskyns, leveled far more serious charges, claiming the community's drive toward a single market showed "growing evidence of confused objectives, protectionism, cynical disregard of community rules, dreams of '60s-style social engineering, administrative incompetence, bureaucratic dishonesty and fraud."
"We had--and have--the makings of a fiasco," he predicted.
Even the smallest issues evoke bitter disputes.
West Germans were outraged when the community, in the interest of harmonization, tossed out a 16th-Century German law forbidding the sale of beer with additives and were quickly insulted further by a similar ruling on sausages.
Equally incensed French hunters recently turned out en masse to protest a European Community conservation measure curtailing the bird-hunting season by a third.
"Hunters: Fire on Europe!" the leading Paris daily Liberation urged.
Last year, a British member of the European Parliament, Carol Tongue, marshaled bird-loving Britons in a futile mini-crusade against community plans to slap a tax on birdseed.
Only the Italians seem unreservedly enthusiastic.
Can Only Improve
"What can be worse than what we already have here," chirped a senior civil servant in Rome during a discourse on Italy's bureaucratic morass.
But barriers are falling, and as they do, resistance to further change is certain to rise.
Indeed, commission officials believe one key reason for the European Community's present momentum toward 1992 is the widespread ignorance about just how sweeping the proposed changes really are.
It is only now beginning to sink in, for example, that exposing long-pampered national industries to the free-for-all competition of an open internal market will unleash nothing less than the restructuring of European industry.
"I get the sense that the business community is just now coming to grips with what's been happening," said Alfred H. Kingon, U.S. ambassador to the European Community.
Added West German economist Fels: "If the potential losers in this knew their fate, they could form a coalition to block it all. The uncertainty is the reformers' biggest benefit."
The current extent of protectionism is reflected in a single statistic: less than 2% of the estimated $300 billion in annual governmental contracts awarded within the 12 community nations goes to a company from a second country.
If business is just waking up to the revolution about to overtake them, the general population remains curiously asleep.
For despite the vast reach of the changes under way, ordinary Europeans remain largely detached from the developments that will shape much of their future.
As a gripping issue, 1992 is a flop. The British and Dutch governments are so concerned at the lack of awareness that they hired ad agencies to promote the issue. West Germany is considering the same.
Not even next June's community-wide elections for a new European Parliament have stirred interest.
A recent election in southern England to fill a vacant European parliamentary seat set a record for voter apathy with a 14% turnout.
But even if opposition should grow, the momentum toward 1992 will be difficult to stop.
In fact, considerable chunks of national sovereignty have already gone to Brussels.
The European Community has altered the terms of a British airline merger, demanded changes in the relationship between the French government and its state-owned auto giant, Renault, and insisted that any Italian state aid to its steel industry include modernization measures.
In a statement that sent shock waves through national capitals and parliaments, Delors last year confidently predicted that within a decade, "80% of the economic legislation and, perhaps, tax and social legislation will be decided at the community level."
Peter Ludlow, director of the Center for European Policy Studies here, noted that environmental legislation placed before the British Parliament in recent years is already more than 80% of European Community origin.
"It's very difficult to see how the process can be reversed at this point," Ludlow said.
A sense of urgency and mission pervades the 13-story glass labyrinth that is home to the community's 8,000 bureaucrats. Here, 14-hour days and late evening meetings are standard fare for those charged with steering the endless, often emotional compromises required.
But recent breakthroughs have instilled a confidence that is visible.
"There's an excitement, a challenge you can detect now," said Neville Kerry, a former member of the Irish Senate and now part of what he calls the largest press operation outside the White House.
Monnet's disciples now speak of 1992 as merely a way station on the path to a single European currency and movement toward political unity.
"Of course it will take a long time," Edith Cresson, French minister for European affairs, said in an interview. "But perhaps in 20 or 30 years, we will have something that looks like the United States.
"Maybe not quite the same, but something like it."
Times researcher Christine Courtney contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times