TOMORROW'S meeting in Prague of 150 of Europe's best and brightest - artists, scientists, writers, and politicians - was intended to be a dramatic show of European unity. Instead, the occasion will likely illustrate many of the deep cracks dividing the continent. The distinguished guests will discuss the creation of a European "confederation." French President Francois Mitterrand launched the confederation idea in December 1989. The Berlin Wall had just collapsed and Mr. Mitterrand was searching for a response to the dramatic change.
"The goal is to find a new flexible, pan-European format for concrete cooperation," a French Foreign Ministry official explains. "We could deal with issues like the environment, transport, immigration - issues which affect everyone and fall outside the jurisdiction of the European Community."
The confederation plan is a passion for the French - but not for the expected benefactors, the East Europeans. Czechoslovak officials worry that French style will prevail over substance. What they really want is membership in the European Community.
Recent consultations on the Confederation Congress have exposed this basic misunderstanding. When Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel visited France in March, he lunched with Mitterrand at the Elysee Palace. Czechoslovak officials present say Mitterrand offered a long description of his Confederation dream. Mr. Havel tried to turn the conversation toward membership in the European Community. He asked Mitterrand's public support for a Czechoslovak application.
Mitterrand reportedly refused. He explained that the time was not ripe for the Community to accept new members. Havel countered by asking that the French at least support a generous "association" agreement that would give Czechoslovak farm, textiles, and steel exports freer access to Community markets. Mitterrand, apparently afraid to hurt French farmers, clothiers, or steelmakers, turned the conversation back to his cherished confederation.
"Our relations with France are not what they should be - and that's being charitable," says Jaroslav Jiru, foreign editor of Lidove Noviny, a Prague daily. "We want to talk about real things. The French want to dream."
Another problem centered on United States participation. In the French view, the US is not part of Europe, so it should not be included in the European Confederation, and US guests should not be invited to the congress. But in the Czechoslovak view, the US presence is a guarantee for future peace and prosperity on the continent.
"Our politicians just can't understand this French view of an independent Europe without America," says Mr. Jiru. "They want closer, warmer relations with America - and want her to stay here."
In the end, the key differences were papered over. The Czechoslovaks decided that it wouldn't be polite to block the French party in Prague. The French, meanwhile, agreed to allow American participants to attend.
But the basic misunderstanding persists. The French say they are breaking ground toward East-West understanding, and hope this week's Confederation Congress will inaugurate a regular set of conferences. The Czechoslovaks, meanwhile, say they can foresee an endless round of talks that go nowhere. The Czechoslovaks say their dealings with Germany are much more straightforward than those with France - and commercially rewarding.
"We tell the West we don't need their advisers, we don't need favors, we only want an opportunity to trade freely and join their clubs," says Ivan Svitek of the Czechoslovak Finance Ministry. "But the West only gives us nice words."