A passerby, curious about an unusually long line of limousines snaking down the street in front of one of Washington's poshest hotels, paused to ask a chauffeur the identity of the visiting dignitary who required all these chariots of power. The chauffeur replied, ''Le President de l'Europe.''

A grand title. Now, name the President of Europe.

The potentate who is pleased to be called that is Jacques Delors. He is, fortunately, not yet nearly as potent as his title implies and as he plans to be. As president of the European Community's executive commission, he is the leading bureaucrat in Brussels, the capital of bureaucracy and pretender to the inflated title of capital of Europe.

This ''president'' of a continent of democracies is an appointed official. His title reflects the fact that in politics, vanity often is inversely proportional to legitimacy. But the title also testifies to a dark side of today's ''Europhoria.''

There is afoot an attempt to supplant politics by edicts. This antidemocratic impulse may be the last refuge of, or merely the latest manifestation of, socialism's durable dream of replacing the governance of people by the administration of things. Administration, that is, by a mandarin class claiming special understanding of social rationality. That rationality promises tidiness to supersede the unpredictability of unguided choices made by free people and free markets.

Just as Eastern Europe is peeling away layer upon layer of statism, Western Europe is marching into more of it. It is marching beneath a banner emblazoned with the words: ''the European ideal.'' That ideal is more ardently worshiped than carefully defined. It is usually expressed, with almost perfect vacuity, as ''unity.'' Or, with perfect vacuity, as ''1992,'' the year in which the ''single European market'' supposedly will materialize as a precursor of political unity.

Given Europe's 20th century record of misplaced enthusiasms, it is depressing that there is so little skepticism about all this. Almost all of Europe's critical faculties seem to have been obliterated by the intoxicating triumphalism occasioned by events in the eastern portion of Europe. But the triumph there, properly understood, was over an intense form of something Delors represents in mild but not benign form.

Delors represents the dilution of national sovereignty for the convenience of a clerisy that congratulates itself for a cosmopolitanism that transcends ''narrow'' national preferences. Delors represents the sacrifice of important dimensions of self-government, to be sacrificed on the altar of abstractions defined outside the normal processes of democratic debate.

However, not all of Europe's skepticism is in abeyance. Two years ago, British Prime Minister Thatcher sounded a tocsin. Speaking in Bruges, Belgium, at the College of Europe (more title-inflation), she took up the gauntlet thrown down by Delors when he said that by the mid-1990s ''80 percent of our {Europe's} economic legislation, and perhaps even our fiscal and social legislation as well, will be of Community origin.''

Thatcher is a daughter of the mother of parliaments and has devoted her public life to expanding the sovereignty of markets. She heard the menace -- to Parliament and markets -- in Delors's remark. In her riposte, she connected free markets with national sovereignty.

''We have not,'' she said, ''successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed on a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.''

For this she was labeled a ''reluctant European'' and accused of violating ''the spirit of Strasbourg.'' Strasbourg is the home of the ''European Parliament,'' which is yet another exercise in aggrandizement-by-labeling. It is a parliament without a government. It lacks the three principal functions of a parliament -- the ability to make laws, select the executive and levy taxes. Unfortunately, unreluctant Europeans itch to remedy this parliament's impotence -- which is the only thing that makes it tolerable.

Britain has a tradition of periodic isolation, often from a continent behaving badly. Britain was isolated from Napoleonic Europe. During the Battle of Britain, the 50th anniversary of which will be commemorated this autumn, it stood alone. The headline ''Fog in the Channel, Continent Cut Off'' may be apocryphal, but this exchange between an American and a British friend is not: ''You British smoke too much.'' ''Yes, but smoking is even worse in Europe.'' That last is the voice of an offshore islander, voicing the reflexive separateness that comes from -- with -- Britain's national memory.

Few Europeans share Thatcher's skepticism, but all Europeans have a stake in it.