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Regional Outlook : European Unity Is Losing Vigor : The dream survives but the timetable slows.


BRUSSELS — Fabienne de Kimpe is part of the new Europe.

As a counselor at one of 200 information centers scattered across the European Union's 12 member countries, she advises business people on how to get around in the union's vast new single market, which became a reality early last year.

In her modern, ground-floor office, under a poster of a hang glider soaring effortlessly through a sunlit sky over the word Europe, De Kimpe helps her clients come to grips with an array of difficulties, ranging from tax questions and union standards to finding partners in the outer reaches of their expanded business world.

"It takes time for the awareness of these new horizons to develop, but it's coming," she said. "What's lacking now is a single currency. Only then will we have a really unified market."

While the idea of a single European currency makes sense to De Kimpe and leaders of the EU states who nearly three years ago agreed to form a monetary union by the end of the century, there is no longer any certainty that it will be accomplished.

Other lofty goals--including the full economic and political union that the 12 leaders also set down at their historic December, 1991, summit at Maastricht, the Netherlands--have grown fuzzy and uncertain, while talk of a confident, centralized union by the end of the century has all but ceased.

The underlying reason for all this is not hard to find: Europe's leaders have quite simply lost their way. After they defied skeptics by meeting a self-imposed 1992 deadline for creating a single market without tariffs, and after they committed themselves in 1991 to political and economic unification by the end of the century, their drive toward greater European unity has faltered.

Many believe that, for the union to regain its direction and its confidence, it must successfully deal with two major challenges: combatting unemployment and bridging Europe's former East-West divide by reaching out to the Continent's new, post-Communist democracies.

"If we get either of these wrong, we're all in deep trouble," said Stanley Crossick, chairman of the Belmont European Policy Center, a Brussels-based think tank.

Nevertheless, the achievements so far have been considerable. The union's member nations constitute the world's largest and richest consumer market. Goods, capital and people move more freely than ever on a continent that twice in this century has been racked by nationalistic wars.

This new freedom has been a major factor in the prosperity that today separates the EU West from the tumbled communism in the East. As the fathers of European unity predicted a generation ago, this economic interdependence has virtually eliminated the possibility of armed conflict among member states.

Much Uncertainty

But uncertainty clouds the way forward. Among senior policy-makers, debates rage on issues such as whether the union must reform and strengthen its creaking institutions before it can even consider the task of expanding its membership across the old East-West divide.

Meanwhile, a new, distinctly nationalist government has taken over in Italy; German Chancellor Helmut Kohl for the first time has begun complaining openly about his country's high contributions to the EU treasury, and Britain's increasingly beleaguered Prime Minister John Major views attacks on Brussels as one of the few ways he can score political points at home.

Hopes for a monetary union, which seemed to perish amid last year's European monetary crisis, have once again begun to rise, but that goal too remains elusive. Western Europe's deepest, most prolonged recession since World War II has only added to a sense of disarray.

In the four decades since their idea first began to take root, the promoters of European unity have survived several troughs of doubt during previous economic downturns. But what makes this crisis unique and more worrisome is that this time the recession is a sideshow.

Today, it is impotence in the face of troubling new problems that really gnaws at Europe's confidence and saps its will.

"Apathy, confusion and frustration have settled like mildew over the Continent," commented Werner Weidenfeld, a respected Mainz University political scientist, in an article last month in the German daily Die Welt. "What, as an idea, lifted the fantasies of generations, is, as a real political system of a united Europe, becoming the focus of whiny accusations."

Said Andre Sapir, head of the Brussels-based Institute of European Studies, "People have gotten a bit lost on what Europe is about."

For the new democracies of Central Europe, whose 1989 anti-Communist revolutions were in large part driven by a yearning to become part of Western Europe's rich, free-market democratic experience, the EU's loss of direction is especially disturbing.

Suddenly, one of the great prizes of their success has shrunk.

For the United States too, the EU's present malaise is critically important.

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