For the third time in this century the old order is crumbling in Europe, and the world waits anxiously for a new one to be born. The transition promises to be long, difficult and hazardous. But rarely if ever has the vision of a peaceful and relatively free Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals seemed so palpably within grasp. Thus 1989 is destined to join other dates in history -- 1918 and 1945 -- that schoolchildren are required to remember, another year when an era ended, in this case the 44-year postwar period, which is closing with the rapid unraveling of the Soviet empire.
Because events in Eastern Europe sometimes appear to be spinning out of control, the need grows more urgent to perceive and outline even the vaguest contours of the reshaped Continent to come. The crumbling of Communism in the East carries risks that might be avoided and offers opportunities to choose policies most likely to bring stability to a new European order.
Accordingly, TIME invited five experts on European political and economic affairs -- a Soviet, a Hungarian, a Frenchman, a West German and an American -- to try and give definition to what Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev calls "the common European house." During a six-hour meeting last week at an 18th century mansion in Brussels, the "capital" of the twelve-nation European Community, the group was asked to share insights on the future of Europe. The panel was not always in agreement but found consensus on some basic points:
-- Gorbachev's unprecedented attempt to democratize Communism and his drive for economic reform or perestroika have brought the Soviet Union to the brink of breakdown. As popular frustration rises, recourse to some form of more autocratic rule -- either under Gorbachev or a successor -- is increasingly possible.
-- Instability is likely to prevail in Eastern Europe for years to come, but for all its problems, the region has a far better chance of building democratic institutions and a market economy than the Soviet Union, which lags decades behind its former satellites.
-- The reunification of Germany is inevitable. That need not represent a military or commercial threat in 19th century balance-of-power terms -- but only if reunification is achieved within a European framework.
-- The U.S. -- and NATO -- still has a major role to play in Europe, especially before more sweeping arms-control agreements come into force and before a new political equilibrium is established on the Continent.
-- Western Europe should not be tempted into slowing or diluting its program of economic integration scheduled to culminate in 1992. The European Community must remain a beacon and a model for reformist leaderships in the East.
-- Eastern Europe's emergence from 40 years of isolation may well come at the expense of the Third World, which will see Western concern and capital flows diverted to the transition from Communism.
-- With the winding down of the cold war, national power will no longer be measured in military terms but in shares of world markets and in technological achievement.