SINGLE MARKET VITAL AS EVER

Barely six months ago, the European Community's program to create the world's biggest single trade bloc by 1992 was widely regarded as the most revolutionary development on the Continent since the end of the Second World War.

Now, of course, the 1992 program is running a poor second to the real revolution in the eastern half of Europe. The cataclysmic events in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania have, at a stroke, buried 40 years of ossified perceptions about the seemingly permanent division of Europe.Yet the 1992 venture should not be dismissed as a minor affair compared with the profound changes under way in Eastern Europe. The 1992 program played no small part in the complex mix of forces that finally dislodged 45 years of communist hegemony to the East.

The European Community was taking its first steps toward the single market just as Comecon, the Soviet-dominated trading bloc, was malfunctioning seriously. Most of the EC's 12 member states were cruising through an economic boom at a time when the cash-strapped, heavily indebted countries of Eastern Europe were sinking deeper into stagnation.

This ever-widening divide made East Europeans even more conscious of their second-class status: Their Western neighbors were getting richer while they were facing deteriorating living standards.

Their leaders, too, got the message, and beat a path to Brussels to sign trade agreements and ensure their modest commercial links with the EC wouldn't be snapped in a post-1992 "Fortress Europe."

Admitedly, the 1992 project was a minor catalyst for change in Eastern Europe compared with the contagious effect of Solidarity's success in Poland and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's decision to keep his troops in their barracks as communism crumbled in Moscow's satellites.

But from now on, the single market will play a crucial role in East Europe's transition to multiparty democracy and a market economy. Moscow, which is tracking the creation of the EC's single market closely, expects a lot from Brussels. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze has called for a continent-wide "European Economic Space" that would include the EC, the six-member European Free Trade Association and Comecon. Only two years ago, the Soviet Union didn't even recognize EC institutions.

Talk of democratic East European countries eventually joining the EC is for the moment wishful thinking. But the EC has to do some serious thinking about its fast changing relationship with the reforming East bloc. Food aid for Poland, billion-dollar loans to Hungary and a clutch of trade and cooperation agreements with Comecon members, including the Soviet Union, are essentially stopgap measures.

The EC has taken the first steps toward forging closer economic links with Eastern Europe. It is to establish an investment bank, with capital of some $11 billion, to finance industrial projects and joint ventures in the East. EC companies are weighing the possibilities of using Eastern Europe's pool of relatively cheap, skilled labor to produce goods for Western Europe.

As the EC shoulders the West's responsibility for aiding Eastern Europe's move to democracy, it is crucial that its 1992 program succeed.

To outsiders, the EC's 1989 agenda appeared to be dominated by one issue: economic and monetary union. The decision by EC leaders at their Strasbourg summit in December to hold an intergovernmental conference in end-1990 to discuss steps toward an EC-wide system of central banks and a common currency seemed to suggest that this will be the dominant issue again this year.

It won't be. The priority remains the completion of its internal market program by 1992.

The scorecard, three years before the deadline, looks promising. While EC leaders were caught up in the drama of Eastern Europe and the controversy over a European currency, government officials were working backstage to put more building blocks of the single market into place.

Almost unnoticed, the EC gave a powerful impetus to the single market in the final days of what had been a lackluster six-month French presidency. EC ministers agreed to an experimental cabotage system to open up national trucking markets to outside competition, made a clear political commitment to rub out most of the anti-competitive restrictions in the cartelized air transport sector, and agreed to liberalize the $85 billion-a-year telecommunications services market.

These totally unexpected breakthroughs were followed by agreements to give the EC Commission the power to block large mergers on antitrust grounds and to allow individuals to shop around the community for the cheapest life insurance.

These initiatives didn't grab the headlines. But they are vital components in the single market program and give an important psychological boost to the community as it begins the three-year countdown to 1992.

And by cementing tighter links between the 12 EC states, these largely unsung developments made Western Europe a more powerful magnet to the reforming governments of the East.

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