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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

European Unity: No Borders, Bargains Galore

LONDON -- Here is a New Year's riddle: What is going up in the East and down in the West? One answer might be inflation. Another might be ethnic tensions. But my answer would be frontiers between states.


When midnight struck on Dec. 31, Europe witnessed two events loaded with symbolism. Czechoslovakia split into two countries, and customs and border men assembled at checkpoints down the middle. In Western Europe, at that same moment, the single market came into effect, removing trade barriers between the 12 European Community states. By the end of this year, most border controls will have vanished, and the Community's 340 million people will be able to travel around Western Europe as easily as crossing the street.


In some places, the change occurred in 1992 or earlier. Last August I took the, car ferry from Dover, England to Calais, France and no one demanded my passport at the French end. Compare that to Bulgaria, which began 1993 by banning visitors from the former Soviet Union unless they have $40 for each day of their trip and a personal invitation.


For many Western Europeans, the best thing about the single market is that they can go to a country next door and buy certain goods more cheaply than at home. The London Daily Mail headlined a story on Saturday: "Invasion of the bargain hunters: Now we can all bring back drink from France by the bootful". It transpires that the lucky Brits are entitled to import no less than 90 liters of wine abroad free of excise duty, compared with 5 liters before. Bearing in mind British soccer fan's reputation for thirst, one can only hope that their teams do not play French clubs too often in the European competitions.


Some hitches remain. If a Dane buys a radio in Spain and it goes wrong, he must go back to Spain for a refund. Technical standards for computers, televisions, etc. vary across the European Community. Above all, there is no single currency, so you still pay a fee for changing your money. It was once calculated that if you started in London with 100 pounds (about $150) and visited all other 11 EC states, changing your money in each place but spending nothing, you would arrive home with 26 pence.


But that is not quite the point. The EC's fundamental purpose is to create such close links between its members that they will never fight each other again. True, the artificial unity forced on the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia brought only harm. Integration between states and peoples must grow naturally from below, not be imposed from above. The EC's record in this respect is not perfect, but the Community is still one of this century's great success stories.