A pessimistic West must hold on to what it has

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The Independent Online
WHEN historians look back at the first three years of the post-Communist era in Europe, they will be tempted to ask if there was any serious attempt to guide events. Did the political leaders of the time merely underestimate the scale and intensity of the upheavals set in motion by the collapse of the Soviet empire, or would they have been overpowered however accurate their assessments?

At the high point of post-Communist euphoria, numerous plans for the new order were generated. They were even likened to an 'architecture', as if regional affairs could be deliberately shaped into some pleasing and harmonious pattern of national building blocks held together by economic wiring and security plumbing, with specialist advice on hand when it came to easing the stresses and strains of the structure. The plans were devised

in the West. It was the West that provided the model for the fledgling democracies and had the economic power to look after them if they followed the model with care.

All this was qualified by a sombre recognition of the scale of the task and a nagging awareness of the potential for the political vacuum in the East to be filled with chauvinism and ethnic conflict as readily as with liberal democracy. Yet to succumb to these doubts was to deny an opportunity for a great leap forward in European affairs.

Now pessimism is taking over, for not only have the grand schemes for the East been frustrated, but those of the West, and in particular of the European Community, are faltering. The evidence for this is found in the extent to which unification has sapped German strength rather than enhanced its power, and the continuing Yugoslav debacle, which provides painful testimony to the resilience of old hatreds and the inadequacy of all those international bodies that claim to find their vocation in preventing this sort of tragedy. Nor have matters been helped by the departure of Communism coinciding with the arrival of the bills for the boom years of the Eighties.

Pessimists draw attention to five further areas of concern:

The potential expansion of the Yugoslav war into Kosovo and Macedonia until it begins to engulf all of the Balkans.

The 'velvet divorce' in Czechoslovakia revealing a not-so-velvety Slovakia that could soon be accused by Hungary of discrimination against its nationals. The divorce has also undermined confidence that at least Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary could be successfully drawn into the Western sphere, even if it would be difficult for other East Europeans.

The position of Boris Yeltsin in Moscow, which is increasingly being discussed in terms similar to those once reserved for Mikhail Gorbachev - with success measured in terms of survival rather than economic progress.

Severe pressure on the Italian state, from the measures necessary to restore credibility to its economic policy and from the influence of the Mafia, with a consequent reinforcement of the industrious north's restlessness over its subsidies to the unruly south.

The real possibility of a 'no' vote in next month's French referendum on Maastricht.

The significance of the last two points lies in the question marks they put against the European Community's main project for the coming decade - monetary union - as well as the current alignment in the exchange rate mechanism. It is already difficult to see how the Maastricht conditions can be met by more than a few countries. The role of the mark will be further undermined if the costs of unification continue to exceed the capacity of the German economy to grow to meet them. It is not evident how any mechanism for maintaining stability in exchange rates can cope indefinitely with unstable political conditions.

Despair is no better a basis for policy than euphoria. Neither individual governments nor multinational bodies can walk away from problems just because they are difficult. However, the methods of coping at times of great historical change are quite different from those appropriate in periods of stability.

The grand schemes of the early Nineties are coming apart because they were so generalised and all-embracing that they lacked relevance to particular instances. Instead of being assessed on their own terms, crises have been judged according to a variety of national and institutional agendas and as a result, they have overloaded decision-making processes.

There are two basic requirements of policy. The first is to accept that much of it will inevitably be reactive, and so capabilities for quick and effective reaction need to be built up. The second is that the guiding principles for these reactions must concentrate on essentials. If the West cannot take on all the troubles of the East, it must at least be able to handle those that impinge on its own direct interests or pose a challenge to basic international law or fundamental values. The worst approach is to dabble in everything, which produces responsibility without results.

This is true even in plans for the West. The degree of co-operation and policy co- ordination in Western Europe still makes this period of change more promising and less dangerous than previous periods, which served to accentuate the rivalries among the Western powers.

The worst that could happen would be if the European Community not only failed to bring a degree of order to the East, but was itself afflicted by the disorderly tendencies of the East. An ever closer union would be nice; but the priority for the next few years will be to hold on to the degree of union already achieved.