That Cracking You Hear Is The European Union

At European Union headquarters, Germany's Economics Minister, Gunter Rexrodt, proposes an independent task force to dismantle EU legislation that's strangling business. In Rome, Italy's new government names as Foreign Minister Antonio Martino, a card-carrying member of Margaret Thatcher's anti-Brussels cult. Even in Paris, that shrine for true believers in One Europe, senior government officials say that European Commission President Jacques Delors' plan for massive infrastructure spending would destroy the Continent's creaky finances.

It sure seems to be open season on Brussels around Europe these days. With the Continent's economy reviving, this should have been the time for European leaders to rekindle voters' ardor for deeper integration. Instead, the EU is under wholesale attack just as Delors' 10-year reign is winding down.

Recession and lingering resentment over the Maastricht Treaty on economic and political union have pulled the rug out from under national politicians used to running on a pro-Europe platform. Voters are far more interested in local issues and are turning anti-Europe, and the politicians are naturally following them. It may well be a generation or two before European unity sentiment hits the peaks of a couple of years ago.

SICK COWS? The EU's big countries are becoming more assertive in slapping down Brussels' moves to expose national airlines, steel producers, and farmers to stiffer competition. Brussels' big steel-industry rescue plan has just collapsed, a victim of resistance to companies and governments to big cuts in capacity and jobs. Germany warned that it might ban British beef, which German farmers claim carries mad cow disease. The EU was nowhere to be seen in the French-British flap over opening Orly Airport in Paris to British Airways. And the compromise worked out still delays BA's entry there.

European unity also isn't getting much of a boost from the campaign for the early June vote to choose a new European Parliament. Voters are mainly focusing on local issues. In Britain, for instance, they see the election mainly as a chance to shove Prime Minister John Major further toward the brink by electing Labor candidates. In France, the campaign has been dominated by parochial Socialist Party infighting. "We're seeing a focus on domestic issues, not European issues, and a relatively uninformed and uninterested electorate," laments Susie Symes, director of the Europe program at Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

When attention has centered on Europe, it has been mainly to bash it. For example, the big attention-getters this political season have been corporate raider Sir James Goldsmith and his motley band of environmentalists, free-marketeers, and aristocrats collected under the banner of L'Europe des Nations but united only in their opposition to Brussels. The group has garnered publicity by campaigning against, among other things, the Treaty of Rome that set up the European single market.

NEW MEMBERS. The upshot of all this may well be that today's Europe--essentially a single market and a loose confederation of countries--is already as unified as the Continent will ever be. That means no coherent policy is likely on crises such as Bosnia or on the crucial task of integrating Eastern Europe.

The expected entry of new members into the EU next year will likely accelerate the ebbing of Brussels' power. In the coming months, Austria, Finland, Norway, and Sweden will hold referenda on joining the union, which would enlarge it from 12 members to 16. But to woo a yes vote in those countries, Germany, which takes over the rotating presidency of the EU in July, is likely to turn up the anti-Brussels rhetoric even higher to convince voters that the EU is safe to join.

So Delors' successor, to be chosen from a candidate list now topped by outgoing Dutch Premier Rudd Lubbers, is going to have little clout when he turns to the crucial task of nurturing the embryonic democracies to the east. Because Poland, Hungary, and the Czech and Slovak Republics are competitive threats to Western labor and farmers, Brussels may face insurmountable resistance when it leans on big member states such as France to dismantle trade barriers and share the cost of aiding the East. "Without strong leadership from Brussels, Eastern Europe is something a number of EU countries would like to say no to, and probably will," says University of Geneva economist Richard Baldwin.

But failure to integrate the Easterners smoothly into the West could prove disastrous. Western Europeans may find themselves longing for that time when Brussels could get things done.

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