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Unemployment dogs Europe, dampening dreams of unity

With unity beginning to crumble beneath their feet, leaders of the 12 European Community countries are assembling here in an effort to stop the rot brought on by economic recession and their own failures to face the nationalist challenges of what was supposed to be a brave new world.

A couple of hours to the east, Serbia and Croatia are defiantly engaged in gobbling up Bosnia in defiance of the Europe the EC is trying to create.

And in advance of the biannual two-day summit starting Monday comes a pessimistic report that community output is expected to fall by half a percent this year and unemployment rise to the highest level in 30 years, bringing it to 18-million, or 12 percent of the work force.

The main business of the summit will be, as President Clinton would say, "Jobs, jobs, jobs."

The contrast could not be greater between the gloom in Copenhagen this week and the EC summit a year and a half ago in the Dutch city of Maastricht.

In Maastricht, the 12 leaders signed an optimistic blueprint for an economic and political union by the end of the century to cap the common market of 340-million consumers that officially went into effect at the beginning of this year.

The story of Europe ever since has been the drive to ratify the Maastricht treaty against a rising tide of public dissent. Britain, the last laggard, still has to do it, possibly by August.

It was a secret to no one when EC economics commissioner Henning Christopherson concluded in announcing the latest forecast last week that "the community is in an economic recession."

Christopherson predicted that it would be the middle of 1994 before growth throughout the EC could resume about at the modest rate of 1.5 percent. Germany's output is predicted to fall by 2.5 percent this year, with that in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Spain slightly less.

The unemployment figures in 1994 are expected to range from only 2 percent in Luxembourg to 22 percent in Spain and 19.25 percent in Ireland. Germany's is predicted to rise from 7.5 percent last year to 10.25 percent. In contrast, the expected U.S. figure is half that, and that of Japan 2.5 percent.

While some of the leaders continue to push for the freer trade as one of the remedies, France, if no one else, is likely to bring up the counter idea of higher walls around what others will call a "fortress Europe."

At the center of a flurry of anti-free-trade talk in France's new conservative majority is the proposed world trade agreement within the framework of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) that already has been in negotiation for eight years.

The French targets are not only Japan and low-wage Third World producers but the United States, charged with trying to ruin French farmers and play EC members against each other. The aim is to mobilize EC members to make French grievances European policy.

In Washington last week, Edouard Balladur, the new conservative prime minister, served notice to Clinton that France would not accept last year's EC farm agreement with the United States _ only to hear Clinton serve notice that an agreement is an agreement.

President Francois Mitterrand will be representing France, as usual, this week, but Balladur will be stepping on his heels. And both they and others will be pressing German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to reverse Germany's agreement with the United States on telecommunications as a violation of EC solidarity.

"France hopes that there will be a realization in Copenhagen of the necessity to better defend the European economy, employment and beyond that a European identity," said Alain Lamassoure, the French minister for European affairs.

While the leaders will talk about urgent measures against unemployment, EC executive Jacques Delors is scheduled to recommend longer-term remedies that many hope will help revive the dream of European unity.

The strains over trade add to others over foreign policy and defense that are pulling the two sides of the Atlantic further apart.

Behind the new Euro-pessimism also lies the humiliating demonstration that the major EC countries are too divided over the former Yugoslavia to do anything more than try to feed the victims. In advance of the summit, Danish Foreign Minister Niels Helweg Petersen called the others Saturday to talk about it, but they have never done much more.

Even if the Maastricht treaty is ratified, their divisions make anything like a common foreign policy it calls for highly unlikely, just as the recession and turmoil in the currency markets have cast doubt on the timetable for a single European currency by the end of the century.

The nightmare scenario is that Eastern Europe's destructive nationalisms could spread westward rather than Western Europe's unity and prosperity spreading eastward.

Almost all the EC leaders are unpopular at home, but none more than British Prime Minister John Major, who gets only 16 percent approval in the opinion polls. If elections were held today, German Chancellor Kohl, according to one poll last week, would run 10 percentage points behind the Social Democrats.

Italian Prime Minister Carlo Azeglio Ciampi has been in office little more than a month, but the whole post-war political system has virtually collapsed around him. Mitterrand is a lame duck and even France's new Prime Minister Balladur is under heavy pressure from the anti-Maastricht wing of his own Rally for the Republic party.

And while Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez comes in the strong position of having just won his fourth straight election, Spain's unemployment problem is the worst.

A sharp economic recovery would go a long way toward changing this picture, but it isn't in sight.

"In the face of this economic crisis, can Europe find an answer?" Belgian Foreign Minister Jean Luc Dehaene wondered aloud last week.

The meeting here is the last under Denmark's presidency. For the next six months, it then will be Belgium's turn to try to breathe new life into the drive for European unity.