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Ever since the European Community now grown to 12 members - was formed in the years after World War II, the ultimate dream was the formation of a kind of "United States of Europe." That ideal took a step closer to reality this week when five nations of the group agreed to let people travel from one country to another without border controls.

The 12-member economic community is scheduled to merge economies after Dec. 31, 1992, to create a single, barrier-free market. But not all are expected to simply abolish border controls at that time.The five leading the way toward a unified Europe are Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany. It will include East Germany after the expected unification of the two Germanys. Italy also has applied to join the group.

Under the pact, the nations will remove border checks for their citizens. People outside the five countries will be able to visit up to three months without a visa.

As can be imagined, the treaty was not easy to reach. Concerns about crime, terrorism, asylum seekers, bank secrecy laws and other issues of sovereignty put the negotiations three years behind schedule. Britain refused to sign the no-frontiers agreement because of some of those concerns, particularly those about criminals, illegal arms and drugs.

Yet the same day the pact was signed, a joint Dutch-Belgian operation nabbed four Irish Republican Army suspects. Even Britain acknowledged that the capture of the four terrorists was a serious blow to the IRA.

The problems of crime will be dealt with through closer cooperation between justice officials, simpler extradition procedures, adoption of similar gun-control legislation and a joint computer data bank on wanted or missing people and such things as stolen cars and passports. Police will be allowed "hot pursuit" rights up to six miles across national borders.

Ultimately, traveling from one country to another in Europe will be no more difficult than crossing the borders between Utah and any of its neighboring states.

For those who have studied the centuries of wars and bitter linguistic and cultural divisions that have plagued Europe, the no-frontier policy is a quiet, but nonetheless remarkable, evolution.