Though 1992 is well on, the dream of an open Europe is distant. By Peter Wilsher.
Nineteen Ninety-Two is upon us - indeed a full quarter of it is already water under the bridge. Soon Britain is due to assume the presidency of the European Community for what is scheduled as the last six months of the run-up to the single market, and our ministers, with their attendant civil servants and advisers, will attempt to fulfil John Major's somewhat grandiloquent promise to "celebrate its completion and make sure it is working well". Some 232 of the 282 necessary pieces of legislation have been agreed, and another 30 are well up the pipeline. Yet even now few among those most likely to be affected by these far-reaching developments are entirely clear as to whether the long-promised cup should be regarded as half-empty or half-full.
In some ways, the whole enterprise has gone far better than anyone anticipated. Early predictions of the gains to be extracted from cutting out such impediments as frontier red-tape and obstructive local quality-standards proved way below target. Floris Maljers, chairman of Unilever NV, describes a very widespread experience when he says that "the better use of capital possible through the 1992 programme turns out to be much bigger than we had ever envisioned ... close to double what was originally estimated."
Yet the resulting happiness, though genuine enough as far as it goes, is far from unconfined. Industralists and bankers - not to mention the long-suffering general public - still find plenty to fret about. Right across Europe, unemployment stubbornly continues to rise. High German interest rates put a sullen damper on hopes of quickly-resumed growth. Investment is still plummeting, as fast in France and Germany as in Britain. Computer firms, and other icons of high-technology promise, are starting to shed labour as relentlessly as coal and steel.
And, as business leaders are increasingly coming to realise the politicians' failure to complete the latest round of GATT trade talks could easily wipe out most of 1992's potential benefits before they ever get through to the profit-and-loss account. That does not mean, though, that they are not worth fighting for. The danger, with so many of the EC's key economies starting to stall and splutter, is that bad old protectionist habits may get a new lease of life before the systematic effort to eliminate them has had a proper chance to prove its worth.
The best way to prevent that sort of backsliding, as Martin Bangemann, the EC commissioner for industrial policy, has shrewdly noticed, is to boost the interest of ordinary people in the removal of all those artificial barriers, so that they can be persuaded to keep up the necessary pressure on their parliamentary representatives. So far it has been mainly businessmen who have appreciated the enormous benefits that stem from more freely-circulating capital, goods and services. But what individual votes are primarily interested in is freedom to travel, whether to work, or to live, or just to enjoy themselves. Unfortunately this is where the feet of even the most committed 1992 enthusiasts have noticeably dragged. The arguments are tediously familiar.
Doing away with border controls, customs posts and passport checks is all very fine, says the oh-so-sympathetic chap from the Home Office. But what about all those drug smugglers, terrorists, illegal immigrants and rabies-carrying chihuahuas?
Of course, we all believe most sincerely in the virtues of a Europe-without-frontiers, but let's face it, folks, the old, well-tried ways are still the best. So just park your car with the "Welcome 1992" sticker on it, and join that endless queue in the baggage hall. Bangemann will have none of this. He recognises that this is a key issue for the man and woman on the autobahn, or in the airport lounge. Unless the single market can deliver a better deal for travellers it will command virtually no popular support, and the officials and ministers who are trying to block this, he says, will have to be made to recognise that this is a matter of immensely important "symbolic, psychological value." He has nominated this as his "top priority" as the clock ticks on towards 31 December. The Commission will mobilise all its persuasive - and if necessary, legal-powers to find alternative control procedures and get people-hampering barriers dismantled.
He many find it, however, to be a more daunting task that he has bargained for. While 350 million EC citizens bemoan the current bleakness of their lot, there are probably at least as many again, in North Africa, the Middle East and the former Soviet empire who would give everything they possess for a chance to join them. Greece, one of the least affluent and most vulnerable of the twelve, has at this moment something like 10% unemployment and a workforce of which at least 5% entered the country illegally, from starving Albania, war-torn Yugoslavia or anything-must-be-better-than-this Bulgaria. When defences are as demonstrably weak as that, it is not hard to understand any reluctance to lower them further - even if it means postponing the day when you can gravel without papers from Corinth to Coventry. But then, 1992 was probably always more an aspiration than a rigid deadline.
Peter Wilsher is a freelance consultant and writer.