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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

European Unity: How Much Zeal Remains?

RUNNYMEDE, England - The birthplace of the Magna Carta, the document that Englishmen regard as the foundation stone of their liberties, is a sloping meadow on the banks of the River Thames. Here in 1215 King John signed the charter that imposed limits on monarchical power and enshrined basic principles of personal and political freedom.

It came as something of a surprise last weekend to see, among the coaches and cars parked near this historic site, several British vehicles whose rears were adorned with stickers displaying the flag of the European Community. This flag, which depicts 12 gold stars against a deep blue background, can be seen in a multitude of public places in EC countries such as France, Belgium and Germany. You even find it in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and other former communist countries, where it symbolizes an aspiration to Western European-style democracy and prosperity. But it is a relatively rare sight in Britain, where for many it is still a "foreign flag", one that would look odd fluttering from a rural pub or stuck on top of a meat pie.

How strong is enthusiasm for European unity in the other 11 EC countries? Following the virtual collapse of the European Monetary System, the grid of semi-fixed exchange rates that was supposed to lead to a single currency, what is left of the European ideal? Consider Bild, Germany's biggest-selling tabloid newspaper. On Aug. 3, one day after the EMS debacle, it proclaimed on its front page: "Hooray, the mark stays. Euromoney is dead in the water since yesterday. . . The mark remains the most valuable, hardest currency in Europe".

No doubt Chancellor Helmut Kohl thinks that Bild is not worth wrapping a Wurst in. But the newspaper reflects a sizeable portion of German opinion.

In Spain, the EC is popular because it is seen as a buttress for the still young democratic system. The EC is also a rich source of funds for backward regions. But for many Spaniards, particularly the 22 percent of the workforce who are unemployed, there are more pressing things to think about than European unity.

The same is true for Italy. Another mysterious bomb explosion in Rome or Milan, or another top politician placed under investigation on suspicion of corruption: these are the things that trouble Italians. It was significant that, when the EC announced the new, much looser arrangements for EMS currencies last week, Italy showed no interest in putting the lira back into the system.

Most revealing of all, however, was the public reaction in Belgium to the death of King Baudouin. Belgium, split between its Dutch- and French-speakers, is the least united of EC states, hence the most enthusiastic for European unity. Yet after the king died, Flemings and Walloons displayed equal grief. They were mourning a man who represented Belgian unity. Perhaps this is a concept as nebulous as European unity. But to the Belgians, it clearly means something.

Such feelings must not be ignored by the self-appointed constructors of a European union. If politicians seek to impose a binding political framework upon countries, regions and nationalities as diverse as those in Western Europe, then they must at least try to carry public opinion with them. At the moment, they are paying the price for not listening to Europeans.