THE astonishing liberation of Eastern Europe has dominated news from the continent in recent years. But the next seven months in Western Europe are arguably as crucial a period for the future of all Europe as any since World War II.
The reason goes back to the Maastricht summit last December on European integration - a summit setting a path not only for economic union, but for political and social integration as well.
By next Jan. 1 the 12 EC states must each ratify the Maastricht treaty in their own national parliaments to get on board the departing Super Europe train. Ratification means that, soon, basic decisions in each nation on levels of employment, investment, and deficits (next, foreign policy and security) would be made as federal decisions in Brussels.
This is a radical and historic change, to say the least, and many ordinary Europeans are just now waking up to it. So far, integration has been sold by European politicians at home as an economic union. But Maastricht went far beyond that - far beyond what EC leaders could have achieved had they put the details of a federal Europe before citizens and interest groups in each country.
Yet now the news is sinking in, and local politics coming to the fore. If European politicians thought they could put aside old questions of sovereignty and lead their peoples by the nose into a historic new power arrangement, they now know otherwise. June 2, Denmark holds a referendum on the treaty; Ireland on June 18.
The issue is stewing in France, where President Mitterrand wants parliament, not the people, to decide. Germany, the main force behind unity, has internal worries that economic standards required of EC states by 1997 won't be reached and would be compromised, thus devaluing the mark.
Since World War II average Europeans have felt a deep sense of stability and identity in local communities and regions. Maastricht would rearrange this basic social contract. True believers in Brussels say only a new, unified Europe can compete with the US and Japan and thus maintain Europe's sovereignty.
Perhaps yes, perhaps no. But EC politicians may be underestimating the changes afoot. They must better sell change at home. Will factory workers in the Ruhrgebet and dentists in Palermo go along? Can ethnic and local ties be lightly regarded?
Denmark is a test case. Danes don't like the coercive argument to ratify Maastricht or be left behind. Those self-assured about the treaty say if Denmark votes out, that's Denmark's problem. Yet if Denmark starts a trend, it will be an EC problem.
The June EC meeting in Lisbon follows Denmark's vote. The character of that meeting - how well it addresses local and national fears - has much to with the treaty's success this fall.
Germany must now do without popular foreign minister Hans Dietrich Genscher, a Europe '92 founder, who resigned this week. Mr. Genscher's dream of a united Germany is intact, though like Europe '92, Germany has a host of new problems.