It only took Saddam Hussein to show how remote the unity of Europe still is. When the leaders of the 12 European Community leaders met in Rome on Saturday night, their intention was to do something about it by beginning to construct a political union, to go along with their Common Market. Their meeting Saturday night and this morning is the first EC summit meeting since Iraq's August invasion of Kuwait demonstrated that only the United States is a world power capable of organizing a response.
The reaction of the 12 Europeans was individual and, at the beginning at least, weak and confused. Little organization, or less will, existed for forming a common European foreign policy or mounting a military response. The realization was humiliating.
What they immediately ran into Saturday night was the usual wrangle between those who want to go faster, like President Francois Mitterrand of France and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who wants to go slower.
Thatcher seized on their repeated failure to agree on a common policy on farm subsidies _ a hot issue with the United States _ to demand an immediate debate. How "ironic" it was to be talking about political and economic union, she said, when they could not even agree on a common farm policy in time to present it in the international trade talks scheduled to produce a new General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in December.
"There could hardly be a worse time to pick a quarrel with the United States (on farm subsidies) when they are doing more than any of us to defend Western interests in the Persian Gulf," she said, speaking only hours after President Bush reportedly telephoned Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti urging that the leaders agree on farm subsidies.
The United States wants them cut drastically, if not eliminated, but the Europeans are far from that. Andreotti, the current EC president, told Thatcher that agreement was likely this week on a proposal to cut the subsidies by 30 percent in the 10 years beginning in 1996. He refused to be diverted from the agenda here of talking about plans for political and economic union, but Thatcher had her say and may bring it up again.
No grand decisions are expected to be made here. But before they start home this afternoon, the 12 leaders will have gone around the table each expressing his or her ideas of how to proceed in forming a political union that eventually could become a United States of Europe.
The differences surfaced again over proposals for an economic and monetary union that is also on the table to go along with the virtually frontierless Common Market scheduled to go into effect by the end of 1992. Eleven countries seem ready to begin the second stage of the economic and monetary union, including a European central reserve bank at the beginning of 1993 or 1994, according to an Italian spokesman. But not Thatcher, who wants to dot all the i's and cross all the t's before fixing any date.
With these subjects out of the way Saturday night, the leaders went on over dinner to talk about the Persian Gulf, the major issue facing them all. Among other things, Secretary of State James Baker had asked that they scrap their usual budget procedures to give more aid immediately to the front-line states, especially Turkey and Jordan. But even Thatcher refuses to be hurried on that.
Their meeting here is what seems to have become the annual "emergency meeting" to supplement the two regular EC summit meetings each year. This time, there is no particular "emergency" as there was in the past two years in the case of Eastern Europe and German reunification. But it was scheduled anyway and may henceforth be a permanent fixture.
In any case, this summit is only a preliminary for the far more important meetings scheduled here in December when not only the leaders meet again, but also two "inter-governmental conferences" to rewrite the EC's Constitution to accommodate an economic and monetary union and the political union that will get its first formal airing here. Today may indicate which way and how strong the wind for unity is blowing.
European foreign policy is now coordinated, in the few cases where it is, by a "political coordination" body with six diplomats sitting in Brussels conferring outside EC institutions. One suggestion has been to merge this with the EC Council of Ministers, composed of ministers of the 12 nations which meets periodically below the summit level.
The higher European Council, which summit meetings are called, would decide what issues would become common policy. French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas has suggested the Gulf crisis be the first issue along with common votes in the U.N. Security Council. Others suggested common issues include relations with the Soviet Union, the United States and Japan.
Still to be decided also is the always thorny question about whether decisions would have to be unanimous or only by some majority.
Italian Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis has put a cat among the pigeons by proposing that the EC simply absorb the nine-nation WEU (Western European Union, including the 12 EC members minus Ireland, Denmark and Greece), the organization developed to coordinate military cooperation. Most others shy away from this in favor of closer WEU-EC cooperation.
None of that can be worked out in any detail here, where time is short and issues numerous.
Besides the discussion on the Persian Gulf and more perfect political and economic unions, the head of the European Commission, the EC's administrative body, Jacques Delors, will report on his study of the aid needed by the Soviet Union. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, coincidentally, is visiting Spain, where he arrived on Friday, and France, where he will arrive this evening.
The 12 leaders can talk about what they want to, but among other expected subjects is the Middle East beyond the Persian Gulf, including the Lebanese civil war, the Palestinian problem and Israel's defiance of the U.N. Security Council.
This is also the first summit meeting since the formal unification of Germany at the beginning of this month. The leaders will consider the arrangements for the 34-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in Paris Nov. 19-21, a meeting including both Western and Eastern Europe, that will put its seal on the unification treaty and begin organizing CSCE institutions of its own.
Finally, relations with the United States. In response to a speech by Baker last December proposing closer relations between the United States and the EC, a declaration on this has been under consideration ever since that will probably also mention the future of the 16-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) linking Europe and America. It could come here.
In the background here is what has already turned into a nasty fight between France and Belgium over the seat of the European Parliament, the legislative arm of the EC.
Its regular sessions have always been in the French city of Strasbourg, on the border with Germany, which has come to symbolize the reconciliation between the two countries.
But in one of those pork barrel deals that are the nightmare of democratic politics, the parliament's secretariat lives in Luxembourg and most of its committee meetings are held in Brussels, the capital of Belgium, which is also the home of the European Commission and Council of Ministers.
Most of the EC's power now resides in the administrative Commission and the political Council. Several times a year, the 518 members of parliament and their staffs have to shuttle between the three cities, carrying tons of papers with them. To unify things, Belgium, which fancies Brussels as the "capital of Europe," wants to transfer the parliament there, too, arousing howls of French anger. Both Strasbourg and Brussels are building new parliamentary facilities.
Some equally pork barrel compromise will probably emerge eventually that will parcel out headquarters for other European organizations as well. In the meantime, the tug of war continues.
Keeping track of all these bodies by name is confusing. So to repeat, the EC (European Community) is made up of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Ireland, Denmark, Spain, Portugal and Greece. The European Council is the summit meeting of EC leaders. The Council of Ministers is the meeting of EC ministers at a lower level. The European Commission administers the EC and the European Parliament which, of course, is its legislature. There are others, but I won't confuse you more.