THE NOTION of a united Europe is in essence a very attractive one, underpinned as it is by a belief in a "catholic" vision of a section of the globe, a union among different peoples across national boundaries. This rosy Euro-vision calls upon principles of solidarity and sharing and a one-for-all, all-for-one team spirit that touches chords of positive responses in even the most reluctant musketeers.
How do we explain, then, the growing anti-Maastrichtbacklash? Set off by the Danish "no" earlier this summer, the Euro-skeptic rivulet may swell into a flood if the French, as last week's opinion polls indicate, vote "non" later this month.
The problem lies in the timing. When your own house is not in order, how can you concern yourself with your neighbour's? Seldom has the mood in Europe been so sombre: nations that until recently were giddy with 1980s success have donned the mournful expressions of a Greek chorus and though what issues forth seems a cacophony of discordant sounds, a careful ear will pick out a leitmotif in this wailing. Notes of disillusionment and economic gloom rise above the continent and Britain in a warning echo of other, difficult times: the 19th century Russia of the Czars, the Weimar Republic, Germany in the 1930s. It is in soil such as this that the seeds of Fichte's notion of yolk (the people) and Neitzche's Superman take root, branching off into strident nationalist pride, xenophobic tendencies, and a growing disinterest in that key to internationalism, the Christian virtue of tolerance.
When all around seems uncertain, what better way to protect yourself from panic than to believe you belong to a chosen people, a master race? The line between patriotism and nationalism is a blurred one, and what we are witnessing across the map of Europe has all the signs of a resurgence of the jingoist emotions which, when tapped by an unbalanced leader, give way to a racist ideology that vents itself in discriminatory legislation, violent attacks, and even genocide. Neo-Nazis tear through east German towns attacking refugees' shelters, and German bankers look loathe to cut interest rates despite pleas from fellow Europeans. In Italy, the popularity of the Lombard League, which campaigns to oust all immigrants and to separate the wealthy industrial North from the poor agrarian South, points to a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo, up and down the boot. In Britain the recession has taken a steely hold of the economy and riots in Brixton and Bristol reveal that not everyone will sit by and wait for Mr Lamont to chart the correct course out of the present mess. And in France a growing discontent with the Socialists in power is prodding the country towards increasing sympathy with Le Pen-like politicians.
Is this the time, one may ask, to compress these different tendencies and tensions into one European entity? Will nations dissatisfied with their own internal policies smilingly accept an amalgamation of rules and regulations imposed upon them by nebulous international bodies? Redrawing the European boundaries to form a united whole would, at present, prove as potentially explosive as the indiscriminate drawing of national boundaries which the colonial powers undertook earlier this century in India, Africa and the Middle East. When the Europeans partitioned and parcelled out territories without so much as a glance at tribal or religious allegiances, they were erecting a house of cards that has proved more inflammable than a powderkeg. The continuing Muslim-Hindu blood-letting, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the inter-tribal massacres in Africa are testament to the danger of imposing an artificial , or at least a premature, unification on a varied geographical entity. Europeans may not yet be ready to trade national concerns for international comraderie: it may be dangerous to force our pace.