Europe nears a crisis as yet unarticulated. While political union for the existing economic community is being negotiated, the geographical dimensions of "Europe" have been thrown into fundamental confusion and controversy by the liberation of Eastern Europe.
French President Francois Mitterrand said several days ago that it could be "dozens and dozens of years" before the East European countries are admitted to the 12-member European Community. He later amended that to say that each case was different. But the remark produced a terrible shock in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary, where people have thought membership in the community seriously close.
Mr. Mitterrand was revealing the choice that has to be made. The community says it is becoming a union "with a federal vocation" -- the expression used at the conference of European Community foreign ministers in Luxembourg early this week. Terms for a common foreign and security policy are under negotiation, with a draft to be finished by December. A common currency and European central bank are supposedly on the way, linked to the European Single Market that will exist in 1993.
This economic and fiscal integration assumes parallel economic policies in countries at roughly the same levels of industrial development. For this reason, a single currency actually is feasible today only for the community's core states, all of them already part of the European exchange-rate mechanism.
The proposed currency union meets economic obstacles in the poorer European countries, Greece, Portugal and Spain, while Britain is against a single currency, proposing in its place a common currency -- a 13th currency, for trade, accounts and travel.
When other advanced European economies join the community there will be new difficulties. Sweden applies for community membership in July. Austria and Finland expect to follow. Norway undoubtedly will reapply, and possibly Switzerland. Turkey's application has been pending since 1987.
Awaited now are the applications from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia -- if Yugoslavia survives. Germany says the ex-communist states have to be brought into the community quickly. If they are not given cause to believe they will soon become part of "Europe," democratic forces there will be undermined. The result could be political breakdown, extremism -- mass migration westward toward jobs and prosperity. Germany has a bad enough problem ahead of it in reconstructing the ex-German Democratic Republic, and is geographically first in line for any migration from the East.
Britain also wants the East Europeans rapidly admitted to the community. London shares the German concern over potential trouble in the East, and as the British government also opposes a federated Europe, bringing more countries into the European Community will help it block federation.
The contradictions that confront Europe are obvious. If there really is to be an integrated, federal Europe with a central bank, a common foreign policy and a security policy, it is hard to believe this can be composed of more than the original six of the community -- France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux three -- possibly enlarged by two or three others.
Spain and Portugal might be part of it, given regional aid to bring them closer to the others' economic levels, and possibly Denmark. Britain will not belong, for political reasons. Greece will not, for economic reasons. Ireland will not; Ireland's neutral foreign policy precludes it.
Of the prospective community members, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland all are advanced economies, but political neutrals who presumably would wish to remain neutral. Sweden has explicitly asked exemption from European security integration. The Soviet Union has made it known how sensitive it is to East European military cooperation with the West.
Hence there has to be a two-speed Europe -- or a three-speed one -- on security matters as well as on monetary integration. There certainly will have to be a four- or five-speed European market, if the ex-communist countries become part of it. Germans already talk of as long as 20 years to bring East Germany up to West European economic speed. How long would it take to do that for Romania, Bulgaria -- Albania? What will be left of European Community economic integration, not to speak of its "federal vocation," when all these countries are members?
If they are not made members, however, what happens to them? Their future will be extremely difficult in the best of circumstances. What might happen to them is suggested in the xenophobic, avowedly neo-Nazi demonstrations seen in Dresden last weekend, the current prospect of civil war in Yugoslavia and the nihilism and disillusionment with the West that is the all-too-possible result of economic "privatization" programs that result in swindles, criminal enrichment and asset-stripping.
But is the community to sacrifice the Europe of Jean Monnet's and Robert Schuman's inspiration to a quixotic expansion in the East? Quixotic because it is not evident that European Community expansion to the East would achieve its intended political and economic goals. Possibly the choice is not so stark. One hopes it is not. But the issues must be confronted.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.