Europe standing at the crossroads: Stability is a realistic prospect, argues Beniamino Andreatta, the Italian foreign minister

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WE ARE today at one of those very special junctures when the whole edifice of international relations can be reshaped. As with every major conflict in modern history, the end of the Cold War provides an occasion to rethink the basic assumptions that govern politics among nations. Previous attempts - Westphalia, Utrecht, Vienna, Versailles and Potsdam - have been only partially successful in establishing a European system of greater peace and co-operation. The failure to stop the bloodshed in former Yugoslavia has already led many commentators to predict another disappointment. I believe that such predictions are ill-founded. In any case, the clay is not yet dry; we can still mould it. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations not to miss this chance.

As it assumes the chairmanship of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, Italy is aware of the imperative to enlist the active support of public opinion in devising specific initiatives that can ensure stability across the continent of Europe, with the indispensable contribution of the United States and Canada. The CSCE mechanisms, whose achievements are little known or taken for granted, offer the most appropriate framework.

We could reminisce about the original scope of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, and its remarkable contribution to tearing down the wall and building bridges between the two Europes in the areas of security, economics and human rights. It would be better, however, to identify and to assert the significance of the CSCE today, in the new international circumstances brought about by the end of the Cold War.

We need to demonstrate in practice its 'comparative advantage' with respect to other forums. The most significant 'added value' of the CSCE is its inclusiveness, its consensus-building role, its preventative capability and its educational value. In essence, it constitutes a pan-European (the only really all- inclusive European) forum with transcontinental connections, embracing as it does both North America and the former Soviet Central Asian Republics. It is therefore much more than a regional organisation. Furthermore, as the Western European institutions are enlarged, we need a forum in which we can embark together on the transition to a new European security structure.

The CSCE marks the outer border, within which many 'interlocking institutions' are at work; it is a framework, unique in its amplitude and flexibility, capable of containing and legitimising the most diverse regional and operational architectures. We should try to close the gap between people's expectations, and the ongoing reform process in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

CSCE procedures rely on consensus and are directed towards consensus-building. Although we should strive for mechanisms that promote increasingly shared and integrated initiatives, the consensus rule is essential for reassurance. It is a precious tool that can dispel any suspicion of arm-twisting, involve governments and peoples instead of alienating them, and apply the skills of political persuasion rather than the weapons of exclusion and confrontation.

Since the 1990 Paris Charter, the essential mission of the CSCE has been to assist all Europe in its current process of transition and promote a 'common law' that sets the fundamental standards of behaviour towards which all members should converge. All states would acquire a sense of belonging and common responsibility that would overarch their instinct for individual national sovereignty. A system of multilateral checks and balances could thus assert itself progressively across the continent, and help to prevent any reversion to power politics or civil strife.

It should be obvious by now how politically difficult, economically costly and militarily risky it is to try to intervene in a conflict once it has crossed the fateful threshold of open armed confrontation. In addressing such predicaments, the CSCE is especially well equipped to mount preventative actions because of the role that can be entrusted to its chairman, the significant work of its newly established High Commissioner for National Minorities, the experience it has gained in fact-finding and monitoring and its broad approach to peace-keeping.

The pan-continental nature of the CSCE provides the collective political framework best suited for contingency planning and crisis management on a continental scale. The role of the CSCE is recognised by the United Nations in Chapter 8 of its Charter. Joint consultations can be envisaged in the framework of the North Atlantic Co-operation Council or Western European Union, in the 'partnership for peace' programme proposed by the Atlantic Alliance. Peace-making and peace-keeping initiatives appropriately legitimised and closely monitored at the multilateral level would then be enacted by the bodies or parties that are most effective and most closely concerned.

The CSCE would thereby stimulate the sharing of responsibility among its members, prevent the emergence of hegemonic instincts, and give visible substance to a collective European system that satisfies the widespread demand for security deriving from the end of the Cold War.

The 'human dimension' of the CSCE should be enhanced not only with a view to preventing human rights violations, guaranteeing minority rights and promoting democracy, but also to restore the sense that Europe has grown together over centuries, for good and bad, bringing together people and groups of different nationality, ethnicity, religion and political persuasion. We should use the tools of the CSCE to question and revise the negative image of diversity as it has been traditionally passed from generation to generation.

An ombudsman should be appointed to identify any distortion, deliberate or not, in the press or in textbooks, that might promote aggressive nationalism or exclusiveness. The building of institutions and other social and economic structures for protecting civic rights would thus become a common endeavour under the aegis of the CSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

The work ahead is forbidding and the odds not always encouraging. But if we succeed, we will have contributed to both peace and co- operation. Then, 'CSCE' will no longer be a puzzling acronym in the alphabet soup of international organisations, but a vital rallying point. If we want to lay the foundations for continuing peace and what Kant called the peaceful federation of all civilised nations, we must take decisive steps to provide new foundations for European security.

Above all, we must exert the collective will of the European family of nations and dismiss any anachronistic pursuit of unilateral advantage. The European Union, Nato, the WEU and the Council of Europe are all indispensable pillars of the European edifice; the CSCE must be the roof.

(Photograph omitted)