THE more United States businesses learn about the European Community's project for a unified market by 1992, the more the fears of a fortress in the building come tumbling down. That appears to be a general consensus - and a budding sense of relief - among representatives of large and small businesses who attended a seminar here last week on US business and 1992. Some are longtime participants in international trade; others are just now testing the waters.
``I think what the American and the European speakers are telling us pretty much dispels for me this sense of `Fortress Europe' I've been reading so much about,'' says Tony Timmons, a Midland, Texas, accountant who wants to start a gift ware import-export business.
Harvey Howells, market manager for Pawnee Extrusions, a rubber products company in Grand Prairie, Texas, says, ``I don't think anybody really knows how this will all work out, just as no one knows what [US trade] policies will be like in 1992.'' Noting his interest in marketing his company's roofing materials in Europe, he adds, ``So far it seems pretty promising for us to proceed and see how it goes from there.''
The Dallas seminar, just one stop of a ``traveling show'' across middle America sponsored by the US Department of Commerce, revealed strong interest in the effects of Europe's integrating marketplace among more than just multinational company executives. With more than 250 participants, the Dallas crowd surpassed expectations.
``People are interested in finding out more and are generally optimistic about this,'' says Don Linville, director of the Commerce Department's 1992 regulatory staff office on European affairs. He cites strong turnouts in cities such as Little Rock, Ark., and Albuquerque, N.M.
The breadth of interest illustrates a more general trend across the US business spectrum, notably among small companies in the country's midsection: a growing attraction to international trade.
``What we're seeing is a really remarkable dovetailing, where 1992 and everything it represents are coinciding with an international trend in the US,'' says Dennis Konopatzke, a Dallas attorney and marketing manager for the foreign-trade zone at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
``Before, foreign marketing and business was seen as a luxury for the few,'' he says. ``Now the perception is growing that we, as a country, must enter that larger market to stay profitable. There is a realization that international trade is just part of doing business.''
The growing interest shows in the attendance at weekly seminars put on by the Small Business Administration's International Small Business Development Center here. Now in their fourth month, the seminars are attracting about 20 business people a week, says Beth Huddleston, the center's director.
``We're working to help the first-time exporter,'' Ms. Huddleston says. ``Although we weren't sure what the interest level would be, we're finding it grows every week.'' Some Texas products that got the nudge towards exportation from the seminars include pecans, a tire-repair product, women's accessory garments, plastic molding for jewelry, and pharmaceuticals.
Ms. Huddleston says the seminars steer toward Europe businesses interested in exporting ``because that's where we feel the best opportunities are - and [because] now, not later, is the time to enter what will soon be one huge market.''
At the Commerce seminar, questions center on the standardization of product specifications for one market of 320 million consumers. Currently an exporter to Europe might face 12 separate sets of standards - one for each member of the European Community. Seminar participants were told standardization is at the top of the agenda for Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, who is in Europe this week to discuss issues related to 1992.
Participants also learned that ``there is no such thing as 1992,'' according to Jacques Pelkmans, an economist from the European Institute of Public Administration in the Netherlands.
A substantial share of nearly 300 directives aimed at converting Europe to an integrated market by 1992 are already implemented. ``Things will be broadened and changed all the time,'' Dr. Pelkmans says.
Another point is that, while European businesses will quite naturally have the marketing advantage on their home turf, many US business people looking to crack the European market have the advantage of already being comfortable dealing with a continent-wide market.
Commerce's Mr. Linville told of a French businessman he spoke with who said he would not have any idea how to sell in Germany. ``We may have the jump on those companies,'' he says.
Still, European participants stressed that 1992 does not have as its purpose the creation of a market for the US or other nations.
``People must realize this is a very difficult process for us, and certainly we're not going to give this all away as a free ride,'' Pelkmans (who is a 1992 specialist) said in an interview.
``But that doesn't mean we're going to come out of this protectionist, either,'' he says.
Americans and Europeans alike say US businesses need to see '92 as a strategy by Europeans for playing on the international market, not as a modern-day version of the Great Wall.
``I don't believe in `Fortress Europe,'' says Harden Wiedemann, managing director of Bristol International Ltd., a British investment banking firm with a branch in Dallas.
``Doing business in Europe may be harder following 1992 because Europe will be more competitive,'' he says.
``The most important question for the US business community to ask itself right now is, `What is the US doing to get itself in shape?'''