ONLY a few months ago, Euro-optimists enthused about the emergence of a new European superpower - big, united, and powerful. A dramatic united market program was reinvigorating the 12-nation Common Market. Germany was coming together at an extraordinary pace and looked likely to pull the rest of the continent into a new era of prosperity. By the end of the century, the optimists insisted, Eastern Europe would be part of the Common Market and the Europe of 700 million people would be equal partners with the US, Japan, and the rest of the world.
Then came the Gulf crisis.
Instead of acting unified, the Europeans rushed in separate directions. The British joined ranks with Washington. The French, eager to protect interests in the Arab world and to appease a nervous population, pursued a separate plan. The Germans held back, preoccupied with reunification and a loathing of war.
The failure to unite on the Gulf crisis dealt a heavy blow to European unity. It cast doubt on the continent's hopes to achieve political union and a Euro-defense strategy. Even Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission, called the continent's response ``ineffectual.''
So what is the truth? Is Europe a superpower or a super wimp?
The answer is: somewhere in between. Euro-optimists overdid it before the Gulf crisis; Euro-pessimists are overdoing it now.
EUROPE has a bright future. It's an economic powerhouse, a haven of peace, a beacon of democracy. But Europe lacks the political coherence of the US. For now, that prevents it from carrying out a foreign policy and means Washington must tote the burdens and laurels of leadership.
Once war broke out, the Europeans at least closed ranks behind America. Meeting in Paris, the nine-nation Western European Union offered support for military action. British, French, and Italian warplanes are now fighting. Even the Germans finally sent fighter planes to Turkey, and pledged billions of deutsche marks for the coalition.
Rowdy pacifists aside, European opinion backs Washington and the crisis has helped with unity. In October, the European Community agreed to achieve monetary union and a single Euro-currency by 1995. Such speed was unthinkable before Iraq invaded Kuwait. An inter-government conference on political union continues its work. Federally-minded Europeans argue the crisis shows that a common foreign policy is more needed than ever and are calling for the replacement of unanimous voting on diplomatic initiatives by a new, more flexible system of voting.