Of Peas and Cathedrals

CONGLOMERATION in the corporate world is relatively fast and easy. Conglomeration in the political world is protracted and full of reverses.

If corporate headquarters tells its food division to quit marketing canned mashed peas, behold, it is done. If Eurocrats in Brussels tell Britons (as they did this summer) to quit coloring mashed peas green, there's a foofaraw and, understandably, new doubt about joining a European Union that has no reverence for the mashed pea tradition.

Nevertheless, in a process not unlike cathedral building, Europe continues to be erected. The fact that several of its component peoples spoke out against going too fast on currency integration has probably helped more than hurt. A looser union is likely to be more comfortable for more cultures than a tighter central federation. (Witness America in one of its periodic efforts to decentralize.) Forcing all currencies into tight bands too soon was more injurious to some nations' businesses and jobs than was tenable.

Even the current effort of Italy to climb back into the currency harness with Germany, France, and the others who didn't leave the money linkage seems premature for a nation unable to tackle its national debt decisively.

Financial problems for the chunnel don't mean trains will cease running between France and Britain. Rhine-Danube canal traffic will increase. Northern Europeans will drive their campers to Mediterranean holidays in ever more traffic-jamming numbers.

Even having a version of barbarians at the gates may be more helpful than destructive in the long run. It's true that the war in Bosnia has undermined European confidence in the ability of Europe's NATO sword to influence even relatively small neighbors. Also unsettling is the nasty bombing campaign of Algerian zealots that began to disturb the equanimity of French life so soon after the IRA bombing campaign fell silent in Britain and Northern Ireland. (Not to mention the atomic tests vs. perfume atomizers battle between Paris and the western Pacific powers.)

These troubles outside Europe's borders have undermined confidence to face the weightier bluster from Moscow. For understandable reasons, Boris Yeltsin is irritated about NATO's pursuing bombing pressure on the Bosnian Serbs without prior consultation with Moscow. He has revived his threat to create a new cool war if Europe inducts former Soviet satellites in Central Europe into NATO.

The answer to this threat is the continuing economic integration of those Central Europeans into the European Union. The Czech Republic is ready and eager. Its prime minister is, in fact, prepared to lecture existing EU members on being more creative and assertive, internally and externally.

And that is the key to economic cathedral building. Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl gave an example of that creative assertiveness in South Africa this week when he promised to seek ways to increase European buying of South African products. (Already Germany is a bigger trading partner with South Africa than is the US.) Europe already helps to solve the economic and jobs problems of North Africa by buying early-season farm produce and petroleum. And it may be called upon to do more such buying of agricultural and manufactured products from Palestinians, Jordanians, and Lebanese to solidify Middle East peace agreements.

Creative ideas are also needed to move forward on Europe's long dalliance with Turkey. In order to do that, Europe's big powers will have to woo and lean on Greece to agree to closer ties between Turkey and Europe. Greek-Turkish thawing would help to bolster an eventual peace among former Yugoslavia's embittered mini-states with their Catholic-Orthodox-Muslim fault lines.

Many of these challenges - Bosnia, Algeria, Ulster, Moscow - may seem so perennial as to remind Europeans of the labor of Sisyphus. When tempted by that despair, they should turn instead to contemplate their ancestors, the cathedral builders.

A looser union is more comfortable for more cultures than a tighter central federation.

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