Setting sights boldly on unity. Western Europe hopes to achieve economic integration by 1992 - and to become an economic superpower. A four-part series looks at the changes now under way.

In five years, a tunnel will link Britain with the Continent. In four years, Europe plans to become one vast, lucrative economic zone. That combination, Britain's Margaret Thatcher told British businessmen recently, ``is going to make a historic difference to the future of the whole of Europe, and its place in the world, and our place in Europe.''

There were no murmurs of disbelief, even though the change must seem astounding to the millions of Europeans who still can recall the destructive war - the second in this century alone - that reduced Europe to rubble only 43 years ago. They remember the hunger, the homelessness, the deep hatred. To talk of a united Europe in the wake of World War II was to be, at best, idealistic.

``It is not a dream,'' Mrs. Thatcher assured her audience. ``It is not a vision ... It is for real, and it is only five years away.''

An hour's flight from London, a dozen flags of old enemies flap in front of the Brussels office park that is the headquarters of a rapidly uniting Europe. There is a 13th, too - royal blue with a circle of 12 stars, looking curiously like an early American flag minus the stripes. It is the flag of the European Community.

After decades of struggling to work together, the 12 leading nations of Western Europe have suddenly launched a bold campaign to put aside national rivalries, reinvigorate the European Community (EC), create a true Common Market, and turn Europe into an economic superpower.

What Hitler, Napoleon, and a dozen despots tried to win by brute force, business and government are beginning to accomplish through cooperation and commercial competition. Significantly, Europe's two flanking superpowers play little part in this. The Europeans are uniting on their own, aiming to create a home market from which to compete with American and Asian markets.

The buzzword in Europe today is ``1992.'' It's on magazine covers, billboards, television commercials. It is instantly understood here as the year when the 12 nations of the EC become a single, borderless internal market. The key changes would include:

Removing thousands of clever, invisible barriers to trade inside the Common Market - especially eliminating frontier delays, paperwork jams, and freight-hauling restrictions.

Freeing capital flows so that money can go anywhere in the 12 countries.

Bringing greater uniformity to the countries' value-added and excise taxes.

Making sure European workers can practice trades and professions anywhere in the Community.

Ending ``sweetheart deals'' for government procurement and opening bidding to anybody in any EC country.

European ministers are meeting at a summit in Hannover, West Germany, this week to further the process. Powerful ammunition for their single-market cause came this spring in the form of a painstaking economic analysis headed by Italian economist Paolo Cecchini. It says that just by integrating markets and achieving more efficiency, European economic output will increase by 4 percent. For a region beset by chronic unemployment and slow growth, such a rosy economic scenario is very attractive.

A rival report by Data Resources Inc., which figures political reaction might dampen the 1992 drive, estimates only a 0.3 to 0.5 percent economic gain.

Political reaction within Europe is somewhat predictable, given the inefficient factories that would be threatened in a borderless Europe. Displaced workers and capital flight - money leaving nations such as France for higher returns in West Germany - also will present problems.

Finally, any more loss of national sovereignty and identity could be hard to swallow. For individual nations that ruled the waves, populated the Americas, and contributed immensely to Western law, literature, and civilization, merging into Europeanness is not done lightly.

Yet almost everyone agrees it must be done so that European companies can achieve the global size and clout to be able to withstand competition from abroad.

By Dec. 31, 1992, some 300 legal changes will have dissolved most trade barriers that divide France, West Germany, Britain, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Belgium, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Many are being phased in already. By the mid '90s, the European market will begin to approximate the well-oiled commercial system of America's 50 states.

At a minimum, being European will soon mean being a member of a lucrative 325-million-person market. That will give Europe exceptional clout in world trade - and in world affairs.

``From now to the end of the century,'' predicts Michel Develle, chief economist of Banque Paribas in Paris, ``every decision in European governments will be in regard to the single market.

This narrows the room to maneuver of individual governments and strengthens the EC.''

Emboldened by its growing political power, the EC is acting less like a well-meaning but ineffective trade association and more like the central government of this continent. Already, steps toward 1992 have entailed an unprecedented ceding of national sovereignty from 10 Downing, the 'Elys'ees, the Bundeshaus, and other power centers to EC headquarters at the Berlaymont in Brussels. Already, all trade policy emanates from Brussels.

This causes anxiety in Washington and East Asia about the emerging of a ``Fortress Europe.''

As internal barriers fall, the temptation might be to strengthen protectionist walls against the outside world. An official at the US mission to the Community says trade developments are being watched very carefully.

Another important effect of the Community's new dynamism is a kind of Euro-magnetism. Austria, for instance, is ready to ask for EC membership, a bold move away from neutrality for this nonaligned nation. Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland - which along with Austria have a special trading relationship with the EC - are studying membership, too. Turkey has reiterated its desire to join.

Moscow and Eastern Europe no longer dismiss the Community as a fractious capitalist tool. They are inching toward mutual recognition with the EC. In advance of that, East-bloc nations such as Hungary are making individual trade arrangements with the EC. East Germany, with its duty-free relations with West Germany, already has entree.

``Everybody is trying to get assured access to the single market,'' says Helen Wallace of the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London.

European union won't just end at commerce, says Jean Paul Tranthiet, a high-ranking official in France's Ministry of European Affairs. ``The final goal remains: the United States of Europe,'' he says.

A spirit of Euro-unity is apparent even in little acts.

Englishman Adam Brown, for instance, works for Airbus Industries in Toulouse. He makes a point of going through the line at London's Heathrow Airport that is for holders of EC passports. It is always longer than that for British passport-holders, but Mr. Brown insists that, since Britain is a member of the Community, he should stand with other Europeans.

By 1992, Britons and all other Europeans will carry a maroon passport labeled European Community, with the country name on the next line.

Community first, country second.

Ravaged by two wars during this century, notorious for national grudges and divisiveness, Europe is on the verge of an astounding change.

At a minimum, the 1992 target guarantees that the next decade will be the decade of Europe.

Next: Euro-giants on the rise.

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