BRUSSELS PALAVER STIRS UNPLEASANT MEMORIES

BRUSSELS PALAVER STIRS UNPLEASANT MEMORIES

The European Union has invested so much politically in the single-currency idea that the less-than-spectacular success of the euro has created a correspondingly unenthusiastic mood about the political future of the bloc itself.

All the concentration on the financial aspects of the EU might lead you to suppose that it is a set-up like the North American Free Trade Agreement: that is, just a financial agreement at heart. But this is not the case.The currency union is supposed to be just one step along the road to an ever-closer political union - something German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer recently discussed in a Berlin speech, just in case anyone thought that he had forgotten about it.

He says the EU must move toward a federal system - a system, in fact, much like that of Germany itself, where the federal government exercises a much looser control over the regional administrations than is the case with the U.S. federal government, for instance.

The German formula of loose but highly organized cooperation is what the Germans naturally see as the best future for the EU. But what with one thing and another, the idea of steady, disciplined progress toward this goal has run out of steam.

The EU has been faced with two problems at the same time.

The first was the problem of internal reform, to bring about this closer political union. And it was supposed that the EU would develop not just a coordinated financial policy, but a common foreign and security policy, too. This would occur along with a huge range of harmonized domestic policies.

The second was the problem of external expansion. This was on the horizon 10 or 15 years ago for a few Western countries, and such countries as Finland and Ireland have been successfully assimilated. But the problem was what to do about Eastern Europe.

There was no real excuse for not accepting these eager new candidates into the EU, and if it had not been for the serious structural changes under way in internal policy, maybe it could have been done.

But 10 years ago it became apparent that these problematic new members would have to wait until the internal reforms were complete - at least the most important parts - before they could even seriously be considered.

They are still waiting.

Of course, no one expected it would take anything like this long. With the issue of NATO membership to distract them, the Eastern Europeans more or less let things slide anyway. But now the strangest thing has happened.

Just as in Eastern Europe, ''transition'' has become a permanent condition; the ''transition'' of the European Union has been institutionalized.

The EU's fearsomely complicated Inter-Governmental Conference, which was convened to deal with the single currency, Eastern expansion and all these terribly complicated issues, has now become a huge affair in its own right. Such a huge affair that the original issues - especially now that the single currency, which had the most real money involved in it, has been launched - have now faded.

If these issues have not been pushed fully into the background, they are at least pushed into a middle-distance future that few of the busy bureaucrats in Brussels have much time left over to think about.

It is mostly a question of procedure. There are real reasons for this. As the EU expands, its rules simply have to change.

As a symbolic illustration of the problem, there is a geometric expansion of translation services as new languages are added, and it is unmanageable. The EU just about manages to translate every Greek document into Finnish and Portuguese. But add Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Slovene and Estonian, say - the languages of some front- runners for the first wave of Eastern expansion - and the system would probably break down.

This is a real issue; translation services are the single largest administrative cost. But of course there are more serious political issues, too. The one that most occupies the EU in IGC negotiations is something called qualified majority voting.

This is a system designed to get around the fact that some countries are so much bigger than others. Voting rights based on population would exclude smaller countries completely. A UN-style, one-country, one-vote system is not acceptable to the economic giants. The result is the QVM system, which is under construction, so to speak.

So what is debated, endlessly and in mind-numbing detail, is which particular issues in which particular committees should be subject to voting reform. Only then can the debate begin on what kind of reform should be implemented.

This has, in fact, replaced all other issues in importance. So real problem areas, such as the Common Agricultural Policy, which desperately needs reforming, are left aside.

All of this has created a new kind of Europolitics. The debates have no ideological content whatsoever. The voters cannot even understand them. The only people qualified to discuss them are the new breed of Eurocrats we apparently can no longer do without.

And since continuing with this means that they will never be forced to face up to the real issues, which grow steadily more difficult, there are no signs that they will ever stop.

Indeed, the candidate countries are now forced to start playing the same game. Should Poland care about farm subsidies? Of course not. In true Eurocrat parlance, it should care about whether the Portuguese proposal on relative weighting of issue ''baskets'' after Amsterdam should be set aside until after the next round has decided the appropriate modalities for collective decision-making.

And so it goes.

It is no surprise that public enthusiasm for getting involved in this system is gradually trickling away. For, to Eastern eyes, this politics of incomprehensible jargon and endless committees resembles very closely the bad old days of the Warsaw Pact, with Brussels already discussed as the new Moscow.