Those photos of angry European farmers burning tires in the streets of Brussels called to mind a word from an earlier time -- before the French economy turned around, before the Italians brought their infectious brio to the presidency of the European Community, before German reunification became an accomplished fact, before 1992 became a shining symbol of a United Europe.
That word is Eurosclerosis. It is the flip side of the protectionism that thinking persons now fear is settling over the EC like a light gray curse.
Time was -- only a few years ago, in fact -- when Eurosclerosis was all you heard from Paris, London, Rome, Bonn. It was too bad, it was said, but the United States and Japan were pulling away from the Old World. The Europeans were getting left in the dust. They had things the way they wanted; they were rich, old, successful; they were unwilling to change. There was an unmistakable aura of twilight about the continent. You could feel the old blood thinning.
Then the story changed. As the European economies began to come out of their depression of the 1980s, the talk turned to the impending integration of the Common Market in 1992 -- and the great gains that would flow from a United States of Europe. Finance ministers discovered that Europe was in the full flower of the transition from industrial to post-industrial society; it was poised at the beginning of the upswing of another great Kondratieff Wave, a 50-year cycle of technological innovation.
Europhoria had replaced Eurosclerosis, it was said.
Today, it is the growing trouble with the farmers that is on the experts' minds. As farmers rallied to protest the American-inspired movement to cut their lavish subsidies, ministers fretted that European policies, like Japanese policies, were deeply resistant to change.
Before long there will be stories warning that the world is breaking into trading blocs -- Fortress Europe vs. the Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
So what's the situation really? Well, for one thing, the unity of Europe is routinely overstated. With its robust boom, Germany is in something of the same sort of pickle the United States was in the early 1980s, with an overvalued currency as a result of all the capital pouring in. The realignment of the mark within the European currency system could dominate the news for the coming year.
Then there is the subject of the vaunted union of European currencies, whose mishandling sent Margaret Thatcher back to suburban Dulwich late last month.
Finance ministers will meet this week to get the ball rolling on talks that are expected to lead to a concrete plan in six months. But don't bet on it taking effect any time soon -- 10 years is what some EC central bankers are privately predicting.
Finally, there are those farmers, the symbol of what sent the negotiators of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade home Friday without an agreement. The negotiators will meet again in Geneva after Jan. 1 for two more feverish months. (Feb. 28 is the real deadline for the GATT negotiations now. After that, Congress no longer must deliver its verdict on the experts' agreement, up or down; it can negotiate every little detail it likes, after the current "fast track" legislation expires.)
What would happen if the world got itself into an all-out trade war? Horror stories about how the passage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in October 1929 triggered the Great Depression notwithstanding, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Paul Krugman has calculated that a 100 percent tax on imports in the three great economic zones would cause national incomes to fall only about 2.5 percent -- a significant hit, but hardly a depression.
Jobs would be lost in industries accustomed to exporting, Krugman figures, but a roughly corresponding number of jobs would be gained as domestic industries geared up to meet the demand -- as Cadillac began taking over BMW and Toyota franchises.
He could be wrong, of course. Our deep intuitive attachment to free trade may stem from even better reasons than economists have been able to scout out. But certainly the ultimate losers would be those nations in which the sclerotic hardening of the arteries of economic change went the furthest -- and they just might be the European nations, with their mountains of butter and grain.
David Warsh is a columnist for the Boston Globe.