PARIS, AUG. 25 -- The Persian Gulf crisis is starting to arouse concern that higher oil prices and the risk of a global recession may interrupt the drive toward European unity.
The 12 European Community states are embarking on an ambitious agenda this fall designed to clear the way for a single market and possible monetary union by the end of 1992. But the military confrontation in the gulf threatens to complicate a process already burdened by the unification of Germany and the demands of newly democratic East European countries for the affluence and political stability enjoyed by Western Europe.
The fears that European governments may not cope effectively with the troubling economic and political repercussions of the gulf conflict have been accentuated by memories of how the 1973 Middle East war shattered earlier plans to build a United States of Europe.
At a Paris summit conference in 1972, the nine EC member states at the time agreed on a timetable to achieve complete economic union by 1980. But when war struck and higher oil prices caused the world to tumble into recession the following year, European governments lost the will to surrender greater sovereignty as they scrambled to escape the political fallout from the economic crisis they all faced.
This time, say diplomats and government officials in various European capitals, the sobering experience of the 1970s and the substantial momentum toward unity may help European nations surmount the tendency of some governments to seek protection for national interests first when confronted with an economic crisis. Nevertheless, the accumulating difficulties are beginning to cause even the most ardent Europeanists to worry that the 1992 goals may not be achieved.
As stock markets tumbled this past week and the cost of oil surged past $30 a barrel, double the price in July, the anticipation of higher inflation and possible recession generated fresh appeals to avoid the mistakes of the past and to find ways to capitalize on the crisis to accelerate the process of unifying Europe.
Jacques Delors, the president of the EC's executive commission, called for an urgent meeting of finance ministers from leading industrialized countries shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait to "give the markets a message of reassurance and tranquil strength." He warned that it would be "absolutely terrible" for certain countries to begin raising interest rates without acting in concert with other nations because this would soon erode the health of the global economy. But Delors' plea went unheeded and no meeting of the finance ministers is expected to take place until next month.
The jump in world oil prices is also jeopardizing Eastern Europe's transition to a market economy. Several countries, led by Poland and Bulgaria, have sought urgent assistance in coping with the new troubles posed by turmoil in the Middle East. More than $14 billion already has been pledged by industrialized nations to Poland and Hungary, along with other aid commitments to Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and East Germany, but their needs are becoming more desperate because of the gulf crisis.
But the possibility of deeper and more protracted economic trouble in Eastern Europe is worrisome to the EC, which conceived its campaign for unity when the continent was still divided and the Cold War seemed a permanent fact of life.
Unlike British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who wants the EC to embrace all democracies in Eastern and Western Europe and not become a consolidated, supranational power, Delors and some other government leaders believe that the EC should achieve a greater degree of economic and even political union before trying to include new members. Most of those countries knocking on the door, such as Turkey, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia, face endemic economic problems whose solutions would inevitably require vast transfers of wealth from richer European states.
Delors favors an associate membership status for those countries until they can reach a stage of political and economic maturity that would ease the process of integration. But regardless of their membership status, Germany and other EC states are beginning to realize that they will be compelled to finance Eastern Europe's recovery, if only to prevent a massive tide of refugees from the East that could endanger their own prosperity.
Nobody seems sure how much the burden of aid to Eastern Europe is likely to grow, but there are strong indications that an era of higher oil prices could set back hopes for recovery by several years. One beneficiary may be the Soviet Union -- the world's largest oil producer and the traditional supplier for East Europe. But Moscow's new demands to be paid in hard currency could cripple the economies of its erstwhile allies. In addition, countries such as Poland and Hungary have lost huge sums in forfeited trade deals because of the global embargo against Iraq.