Leading Article: Forward with penitence

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'WHY, so soon after the collapse of a bipolar Europe and at a time when we all appear to want the same things, do we suddenly feel so much doubt? Why does a goal that seemed within reach at the beginning of 1990 now seem so distant?'

On the first day of the European Union it is worth pondering this question. It was put to the Council of Europe last month by Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, who spent years in prison for defending values he believed were represented by Western Europe.

Now he is disappointed and uncertain. Observing Europe's failure to stand up for ethnic diversity and individual rights in Bosnia, its unwillingness to make sacrifices for European ideals, and the technocratic approach to European unity that nearly sank the Maastricht treaty, he wonders whether the whole enterprise can succeed.

His question is painful, and his reproach justified. Throughout the Cold War, Western Europe presented itself as a model of how to contain nationalism, reconcile old enemies and build prosperous, democratic societies on the basis of shared values. Its self-assessment was largely accepted by the democratic opposition in Eastern Europe. Yet, just when it ought to feel vindicated and eager to embrace those exiled members of the European family, it is riven by doubts and helpless before the demons of nationalism the Common Market was set up to banish.

Penitent European leaders at the special summit in Brussels last week confessed to having taken insufficient notice of public opinion. That is part of the reason for the sense of failure. Another is the Community's shameful lack of resolution in Bosnia. A third is the combination of prolonged recession, rising unemployment and fears for long-term competitiveness of European industries.

But there has also been lack of realism and confusion of priorities. Political union has been pushed too hard. The natural impulse for European integration derives from proximity, overlapping economies, cross-border trade and centuries of shared experience, including wars, going back to the Middle Ages, when Europe was more integrated in culture and religion than it is now.

For all the stubborn and often enriching national differences that persist, Europeans still have more in common with each other than they do with East Asia or North America. Further integration certainly needs political help from governments and European institutions but it cannot be forced to develop faster than the consciousness of its citizens.

This lesson has now been taken on board by European politicians. They should draw from it not despair but determination to consolidate the gains that have been achieved so far and to build, brick by brick, more solid foundations for further advances. If they wonder where to find the mortar they could do worse than look to the neglected moral values of which they have been reminded by Mr Havel.

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