FRANKFURT -- "We Europeans always think we're different -- that's one of our problems," laments Prof. Derek F. Abell of a Swiss-based business management school.

The differences -- in national pride, style, custom and wealth -- have held Europe back in its desperate effort to match American and Japanese success in creating jobs and markets, especially in high technology.

Thus, the buzzword one hears on the Continent today is "Europe 1992," a high-powered effort launched by the European Community in Brussels to create a single, integrated European market of 320 million souls by that year.

Despite the trappings of an existing 12-nation "common market," as advertised by the EC bureaucracy, the EC remains a collection of mostly small and medium-sized countries that compete against each other as much as they collaborate.

For example, in 1981, European members of the EC agreed to cut back surplus steel production. But they got into that fix in the first place by senselessly competing against each other with reckless additions to capacity.

Some Americans think a "Europe 1992," with reduced or abandoned internal boundaries, might become a more inward-oriented bloc with a protectionist "outer wall." Most Europeans I've talked to scoff at that idea.

The Common Market was established 30 years ago. But despite some progress in cutting tariffs and "harmonizing" -- a favorite European word that means covering up differences -- conflicting rules, a truly unified Europe has been a wistful dream rather than a reality.

Remaining internal barriers and red tape make a mockery of the "common" nature of the European market.

Why should the Europe 1992 effort succeed where others have failed? According to the EC's commissioner for competition, Peter D. Sutherland, the EC has adopted majority rule, "which means that individual governments can no longer stop a single European market."

A recent survey by the British newspaper The Independent shows that 87 percent of French companies have already cranked Europe 1992 into their planning, against only 28 percent in West Germany, and even smaller percentages elsewhere.

Yet, with his native Irish optimism, Sutherland thinks Europe 1992 is on its way: Of 300 obstacles to unity that had been listed on Jan. 1, 1985, 70 have been cleared up, and he predicts the rest will yield to negotiation.

But the 70 issues settled were the easiest. Yet to be resolved are the tough ones, notably indirect taxation. There are as many tax systems as there are European states. Also, regulations differ widely on banking, mergers, takeovers, labor law -- everything imaginable.

As a result, European businessmen and bankers see themselves drifting ever further behind their American and Japanese competitors -- and they want something done about it. And that is the force breathing life into the effort for Europe 1992, says Sutherland. He adds that "if industry keeps up the pressure, then we will deliver {a unified market}."

Such a unified market would mean that Europe would adopt truly competitive, or antitrust, rules within its borders. For example, Sutherland and his colleagues are determined to get rid of the air transport cartel that has dominated the European air lanes for the last 30 years, charging outrageous fares for short flights within Europe.

"We've now taken these issues on, and we will continue to do so," Sutherland promised. Another delicate "competition" issue is state aid -- subsidies or tax benefits in individual countries for declining industries such as textiles and shipbuilding. Such handouts would have to be authorized by the EC in Brussels.

"This is touching the nerve end of national sovereignty," Sutherland conceded at last week's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

But Sutherland said he can envision a Europe in 1992 in which, say, a West German company would be free to operate across its borders in France or Switzerland, with only its home country regulations in force. That might drive a less efficient company out of business.

And company mergers within a single country (over a certain size) would require European Community control after the single market is attained.

It is hard for many observers to believe that nationalistic European governments will be willing as soon as 1992 to let companies move freely across their borders, much as American companies operate in the 50 states of the union.

But that's what Sutherland and his fellow commissioners are driving for, and they believe that they are already close with financial sector companies such as banks and insurance companies.

Many in his business audience in Davos were more skeptical, believing the time frame too short too eliminate rigid rules. "I'll believe it when I see it," scoffed a Finnish exporter.