EUROPE IS SHARPLY accelerating its progress toward greater union for reasons reflecting its changing sense of its place in the world. The 12 countries of the European Community have now put their negotiators to work on agreements that could give them all a single currency under a single monetary authority before the end of this decade. Parallel negotiations will try to work out similar terms for a common foreign and security policy. These agreements will probably strengthen the European Parliament at the expense of national governments.

This sudden shifting of gears is the result of experience, not theory. Above all else, most Europeans consider their Community to have been a huge success. They give it credit for their gleaming prosperity and are increasingly protective of it. Within two years the Community is to abolish all remaining restrictions on internal trade and movement, making it the largest market in the world -- larger than the United States and Canada with their almost-open border. There is a rising sense among Europeans that its political structure does not correspond to the strength that this market represents. There is also perhaps a feeling that Europe's interests diverge at many points from the United States', and that it's time to begin dealing with the Americans more nearly as equals.

But two of the year's great events are also pushing forcefully toward more rapid development of the Community. German unification has shifted its internal balance. France, foreseeing that, has been working for some time to anchor Germany more firmly in the West, and most Germans support it. The European Community from the beginning has been built on the Franco-German relationship, and when those two countries agree, things usually move fast.

And then there's the Persian Gulf. The scattered and disorganized European response to the invasion of Kuwait struck many Europeans as disquieting. It was after the invasion that politicians and diplomats began talking seriously about bringing security policy into the new structure that they hope to build.

The magnetic appeal of the European Community is visible in the neighboring countries who are lining up to join. The Community had to make a choice whether to put its primary emphasis in the 1990s on expanding geographically or increasing the degree of political and economic union among the countries that already belong. It has arrived at a definitive decision to give priority to union.

The rise of a more united Europe will change the balance of power in the world. In day to day relations a stronger Europe, increasingly speaking with one voice, is going to be able to challenge the United States in ways that the 12 countries separately could not. But in every larger sense, the rise of strong democracies always serves American interests.