EUROPEAN Community summits have so often ended in disappointment that last month's session in Brussels wasn't given much advance buildup. And so when a major agreement was hammered out in the small hours of Feb. 13, the world did not take proper notice. But the agreement - a package of reforms put together by Jacques Delors, former French finance minister and current European Commission president - is now being hailed as the most significant development in the community's 30-year history.
The accord, put together with considerable effort by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, is intended to put Europe on the path to a single ``internal market'' by 1992, with free movement of goods, services, and currency across national frontiers.
The deal required careful compromises whereby the big countries who stand to benefit most from dropping trade barriers (e.g. Germany) will pay the cost of protecting less developed EC members (e.g., Portugal) from the ravages of free competition. And by coming up with some restrictions on agricultural subsidies, Mr. Kohl was able to bring British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher aboard.
The Europeans hope that this new level of integration will help rev up their economies, which are not doing badly, but not exactly lighting up the sky, either.
The latest EC forecast, revised last month, for growth in gross domestic product in 1988 is 1.9 percent, about the same as its projection for the US. (The consensus among US economists has been for US growth of around 2.2 percent, with the more optimistic White House projecting 2.4 percent.)
European inflation, except for a couple of countries, is basically under control, in about the same range as the US. Joblessness remains a problem: the EC forecast is for 11.4 percent for 1988, down just a hair from the 11.6 percent rate of 1987.
Europe has simply not had the same success as the US in job creation, in part because of its successes on other labor fronts. That is, European standards call for such generous benefits for those who are working, that a European employer cannot simply add people to the payroll as casually as can an American.
And on the other side of the coin, unemployment benefits are generous enough that the jobless don't have quite the incentive to take any job just to keep the wolf from the door. And then there is mobility - or the lack of it. Europeans tend to be less likely to get onto their bicycles and pedal to where the jobs are than their American counterparts are to pile their possessions into the back of a truck and head off to a new location.
To their credit, though, Europeans are making efforts to dissolve some of these obstructions to job creation and to other aspects of more dynamic growth: by phasing out wage indexation, for instance, and, across a number of member countries, loosening up considerably on restrictions on venture capital and generally encouraging an entrepreneurial spirit in countries where going into business for oneself was somehow, well, not done.
The reforms leading to the single European market will continue these efforts in the right direction and, it is officially hoped, convey a clear signal of seriousness about greater integration. The Europeans, again to their credit, are concerned not only about the well-being of their own people but of providing an engine that will help pull developing economies around the world.