LET'S get one thing straight from the start: I've never been the European Economic Community's greatest fan. It's no place to take the kids for a picnic. Personally, I never went there for fun. Don't get me wrong. I always thought it was a terrific idea - sovereign nations at each other's throats for centuries now sitting at a table in Brussels forging a Common Market to combat mankind's common enemies.
Yet somehow, or so it seemed to me, the original idea had been allowed to fall by the wayside. By the time I arrived in Brussels in 1980, the EC had deteriorated into endless rounds of tedious quarreling over what to do with mountains of surplus food that farmers had created with EC support, I observed. And to make matters worse, I was being asked to write about it.
I spent my first year in Brussels mastering (perhaps that's going too far; ``faking'' may be a better word) the jargon and acronyms that EC bureaucrats had spent nearly 30 years inventing.
An American in Brussels
I then spent the second year of my stay trying to figure out how to translate the workings of the EC's Common Agriculture Policy into language my mother in Illinois would understand. (I didn't succeed.) Now I'll spend the rest of my life trying to forget what I learned.
To an American, the EC is particularly mystifying.
It seems odd to us that 12 countries (the six original EC members plus six newcomers) have had such a hard time working together when our nation - the United States of countless nationalities - has run so smoothly.
The answer, of course, is that the US hasn't. It's a constant struggle. But more to the point, I learned that an American's failure is often a European's success.
No one here talks about ``melting pots.'' The Europeans I've met hope to be able to work together without sacrificing their individual national identities - their ``nationhoods.'' That may be their moral strength. It may also be a recipe for failure. Time will tell.
For an American, the EC is a marvelous place to confirm stereotypes picked up in school.
Here the Germans behave so Germanic-ly. The French enjoy being as obstinate and incomprehensible as possible. The Italians love being lovable. The Dutch tend to be the most reasonable of the lot. And the British reason ... and reason ... and reason ... and reason ... . Faceless bureaucrats
It's a wonderfully exhilarating mosaic of nationalities - offset, however, by those famously faceless EC bureaucrats housed in that grayest of gray EC buildings, the Berlymont, whose job it is to turn out a stream of reports and proposals designed to cure even the worse case of journalistic insomnia.
I've also learned that the toughest challenge facing any reporter covering the EC is finding ways of getting human beings into stories. I've even known journalists to invent characters, like some kind of novelist. Bureaucrats here won't be quoted by name. (One wonders why; they rarely say anything interesting anyway.) And so much time is spent reading reports and press releases that little energy is left to go out into the field to see how (if?) the EC affects real people.
So frustrated was I with this state of affairs that earlier this year I headed off to India for three months. There - in the second most populous nation on earth - I wrestled with the challenge of keeping human beings out of my stories. I longed for privacy (and an EC report to read).
But sometimes things looked bright in Brussels.
This June, I was covering the ``Europe Day'' festivities being staged just outside the Berlymont building, trying to stay awake as EC Commission President Jacques Delors, a former French finance minister whose speaking style has put better men than me to sleep, droned on about l'esprit europ'een.
Between naps, I wondered how I could possibly make this story interesting to my mother in Illinois. Then suddenly, a Belgian army helicopter swooped down and landed on a nearby lawn, drowning out the droning Mr. Delors. Out of the craft stepped last year's Eurovision Song Contest winner, 16-year-old Sandra Kim. And within seconds the crowd had abandoned the EC's top bureaucrat in favor of pure pop.
Watching the grass grow
Little seems to have changed during my tenure in Brussels. But then watching grass grow, I admit, can be deceiving.
This summer, in fact, we all watched it grow by a meter. Some thick document quaintly labeled the Single European Act came into force and was immediately heralded as a major milestone in EC history. Among other things, it streamlines the EC's decisionmaking processes and commits member countries to dropping all barriers to trade within the EC by 1992.
That may not seem like much. Or a least, something that should have been done long ago.
Yet the Single European Act may be the very spur the EC needs to create the true Common Market in goods and services that the organization's founding fathers envisioned.
What the EC ideologues reasoned, more widely, was that closer economic ties among EC member countries would inevitably result in cozier cooperation in other fields. And give Western Europe its own identity.
That, in fact, has begun to happen - partly as a response to challenges to Western Europe's economic well-being from countries outside the EC, especially the US and Japan. But it is also the result of unifying pressures inside Western Europe brought about by the EC connection.
Also to be acknowledged is the persistent feeling among EC citizens that membership is better than not. Opinion polls consistently reveal that. Anti-EC movements have won little support among the masses. Not long ago, voters in the bloc's most reluctant member country, Denmark, defeated a proposal that could have resulted in eventual withdrawal from the club. No member country has turned in its card since I came to Brussels. Three countries, in fact, have joined - Greece, Spain, and Portugal.
I am happy I came to Brussels. I am sad to leave. I now move to another city where the flaws of democratic decisionmaking also have a habit of making themselves known: Washington.
I will miss my European ancestors who slave away at the EC in the hope of building a better Europe. But as a journalist, I'll take Ollie North any day.