European unity on the rise. Decades of ice show signs of thawing as talk turns to flexibility, risk-taking, and greater cooperation

It has no national anthem, no Olympic team, no single list of job vacancies, not even a common telephone credit card. A truck driver crossing a border still needs to produce up to 27 documents. The dream of ``Europe'' as a single entity, held when the European Community began in 1957, has come true only in part -- even after almost 30 years of trying to coax and hammer it into being.

Yet today, from London to Athens, from Hamburg to Madrid, the ice of decades is showing signs of at least a partial thaw. Euro-optimism is beginning to make inroads into the more fashionable Euro-pessimism.

The change, according to a number of experts, goes deeper than falling oil prices and exports to the United States buoyed by years of US strong-dollar spending abroad -- important as these factors are.

The talk in European capitals now is of moving toward new forms of unity, of new flexibility and risk-taking, of a more creative use of government to aid business, of dismantling the internal barriers that make Europe an uncommon market to create a more fully Common Market of 320 million producers and consumers, larger than the US domestic market and far larger than that of Japan.

No one is talking of a fully-integrated United States of Europe. Few underestimate the profound challenge of trying to catch up with the US and Japan in the race for global markets, especially in the crucial high-growth, high-technology field of computers, lasers, and telecom-munications where experts say the jobs of the future mainly lie.

After two world wars fought on their territory, many Europeans still, in the words of a former US ambassador to Bonn Arthur Burns ``prize security above risk, permanence above profits.''

Nineteen million Europeans remain unemployed (11 percent of the work force), a figure experts say will not significantly fall even if the economies of individual nations grow at upwards of 3 percent a year for the next several years.

Individual national markets remain small compared to those in the US and Japan. But there's a new mood in Europe to try to compete harder with the US and Japan for global markets. Some signs of this new mood:

The magazine Business Week in New York took a long look at booming Euro-corporations including Fiat, Jaguar, Olivetti, Peugeot, Nixdorf Computers in West Germany, Volkswagen, and Siemens, and noted falling oil prices and reduced inflation. It concluded, ``For the first time in a generation, Europe has a chance for sustained economic growth.''

Veteran Euro-bureaucrat Christopher Tugendhat, who ran the European Community budget in Brussels for eight years before returning to London recently to become chairman of the Royal Institute of Foreign Affairs at Chatham House, detects ``movement in the air, . . . ice breaking up, and spring approaching.''

Why? In an interview, Mr. Tugendhat ticks off some of the reasons: (1) The entry of Spain and Portugal into the EC brings to an end the long process of enlargement that has preoccupied Brussels since Britain's application in 1961. (2) Several EC budget arguments have been resolved for the moment, including how much Britain should contribute. (3) Reforms aimed at making it easier to cross borders, and enhancing the power of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, are to be voted upon at the next EC summit in June. Border paperwork and delays cost the EC about $50 billion a year, according to estimates in Brussels.

Prospects that the EC's internal reforms -- numbering almost 300 -- will be ratified in June are now improved, following a referendum in Denmark on Feb. 27. Approval of the reforms requires a unanimous vote of the 12 EC members. The Danish Parliament had threatened to veto, but a referendum called by the prime minister approved them.

A steady weakening of communism in Europe, as traditional smokestack industries contract and business confidence in even social democratic governments grows.

Even in Italy, where the Communist Party is strongest, the party itself is much more centrist, Italian political scientists say, than traditional Marxist models.

Growing determination by governments to harmonize the maze of differing technical and sales standards within Europe. The standards reflect different national laws, as well as covert efforts to protect national markets against outside imports.

The Eureka program is an ambitious $6 billion effort to match the US ``star wars'' defense project. A $1.2 billion Esprit program is aimed at letting European computer technology speak with a single voice.

Neither is expected to yield quick results, but the efforts themselves are held to be significant in Europe.

``Europe is taking the right steps here -- though problems remain in shifting into the real high-tech growth areas now dominated by Japan and the US,'' says John Marcum, director for Science, Technology, and Industry for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.

A growing number of big, imaginative efforts to harness private industry and government.

On a continent where government has always played a larger role in individual lives than in the US, new moves are being made to sell government agencies into private hands.

Known unglamorously as ``privatization,'' the process has moved furthest in the Britain of Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher. French, West German, and Italian governments have also moved, but more slowly.

``The new rhetoric about unity doesn't mean the end of the nation-state,'' remarks Mr. Tugendhat, former EC budget vice-president and author of a new book called ``Making Sense of Europe.''

``People still think of themselves as British, French, Italians, and so on. Brussels can't command that kind of loyalty or obedience. But more can be done to cooperate in industry, economic and monetary policies, and to speak with a single European voice within the framework of NATO.''

First of two articles. Next: Europe's determination to catch up to the US and Japan.

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