THE WORLD FROM...Brussels

After the European Community's uncertain response to the Gulf war, officials fear return to bilateralism

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WHEN George Bush visited this city for a summit of NATO leaders in December 1989, he made a breakfast selection that had the European Community capital buzzing. It wasn't a matter of corn flakes or grits: The United States president simply requested a breakfast meeting with Jacques Delors, president of the European Community's executive branch.

What caused the commotion was that Margaret Thatcher asked to see Mr. Bush at the same time and was put off. That the US president would keep the British prime minister cooling her heels while he had a power breakfast with the president of the European Commission left Community officials ecstatic.

Here was a symbolic moment, they said, a clear indication that the European Community had become an entity to be reckoned with, a sign that in Europe, the supranational was beginning to supersede the national. This was evidence that Europe's economic might was propelling it to the world stage.

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That was before the Gulf war. These days, the merits of economic muscle alone are discounted. After a glaringly uncoordinated European response to the Gulf crisis, talk in Europe is of a "renationalization" of politics, especially concerning defense.

Observers cite Belgium's refusal to sell ammunition to the militarily engaged British forces as symbolic of the divisions that persist in the Community of 12, which a year ago appeared to be moving ahead increasingly as one. Mr. Delors, said by some observers to be morose over the EC's prospects for closer political integration after the Gulf experience, simply isn't as visible as he was in the heady days of Europe 1989.

Yet moroseness is not the reigning atmosphere in the hallways of the EC Commission here. Officials acknowledge that the euphoria caused by the events of 1989, when the world's eyes were turned to Europe, has passed, that enthusiasm for European economic and political union has cooled a few degrees.

In its place is a new pragmatism that recognizes the lessons of the Gulf crisis and the time it will take to give 12 old and diverse nations a common identity beyond the economic dimension.

"This was a lesson that, contrary to what the world was starting to believe as the cold war died out, economic force alone is not enough," says a senior EC official. "There is renewed understanding that there are conflicts that require a preparedness to use armed force."

In that light, another Commission official says the new pragmatism has boiled down to two basic scenarios for the Community's future: one pessimistic, the other optimistic.

"The pessimistic view acknowledges a certain return to bilateral international relations, which is when Europe suffers," the official says. "This view sees a newly dominant US weighing heavily on economic, political, and security matters, and a Europe that is rich, but unengaged, soft, and without ambition."

The optimistic view is of a Europe that confronts its deepening challenges (both internal and external, as in Eastern Europe) by moving progressively toward greater political integration. Part of that evolution would include Europe assuming more of its own defense. It is a view that sees the new bilateralism as short-lived, largely because "burden sharing" can only be worked out if the US accepts Europe as a whole rather than dealing with individual nations, EC officials say.

"The second scenario requires the EC to be more than an economic giant and political dwarf," the official says. "The Community has learned to sail on favorable winds," he adds. "Now it must show it can navigate through adverse weather."

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