London — On the surface, another bad year for Europe is ending. Britain, president for the past six months of the 10-nation European Community (EC), is handing over stewardship to Belgium, admitting as it does so that economic crisis is as deep as ever.
But at a deeper level, a resilient optimism is still visible among those committed to making the Europe of the 10 work by creating unity in the midst of adversity.
To explain the coexistence of frustration and hope it is necessary to appreciate Western Europe's enormous achievement in refusing to let national considerations entirely fill its horizon.
Despite profound disagreements throughout the year on a wide range of issues, running all the way from how best to keep pig farmers happy to how to understand Ronald Reagan, the 10 are finishing the year determined to hold together and make progress.
One of the EC's most contentious questions - financing its own operations and dividing the cost among member nations - offers a good illustration of this hopeful theme.
Two of the members - Britain and West Germany - are convinced that under current EC rules, they pay more than their fair share.
Throughout the year they have struggled to make their point. It has been an uphill battle, for those who pay less than their share (and gain great benefits from membership) are reluctant to give ground.
But give ground they did in the closing months of the year. Britain's foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, has predicted that a solution will emerge early in the new year.
This atmosphere of optimism is being sustained against heavy odds.
The tradition of European nations working together for the common good is brief. Economic conditions are bad.
Unemployment in the EC is 9.7 million - nearly 9 percent of the work force - and rising. Inflation is spiraling upward, too.
Adverse economic conditions can be politically destructive. Denmark's parliament, after a general election, remains in deadlock. Belgium is trying to achieve a stable government. Britain, under Margaret Thatcher, is beset by economic problems. So is West Germany, under Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's coalition government.
Of the 10, only France looks in reasonably good economic shape, and observers say it is far too early to decide whether the new Socialist President, Francois Mitterrand, will be able to keep things that way.
As the problems have piled up, the Europeans have looked outward to discover new reservoirs of unity. One of the most hopeful areas is foreign policy, and 1981 witnessed a major effort to enlarge the scope of common decisionmaking in external affairs.
The EC kept up the pressure on the Soviet Union to think again about its military presence in Afghanistan.
After last year's Venice declaration the EC sought ways of laying the groundwork for a Middle East peace process that would eventually succeed the Camp David accords.
Within the Western alliance, and with Chancellor Schmidt in the lead, the Europeans pressed for and obtained United States agreement to talks at Geneva with the Soviet Union on medium-range missiles in Europe.
The end-of-year foreign policy balance sheet may have seemed askew to some. President Reagan resisted the implications of the Venice initiative.
Early in December France appeared to undercut the European policy on the Middle East by renewing warm ties with Israel. Afghanistan remained under Soviet control and Poland moved under military rule within the looming shadow of Russia.
But observers within the EC stress that the Europeans' efforts to create a common foreign policy are showing encouraging results.
The 10 are delighted that talks on medium-range nuclear weapons have started. They are convinced that without a European shove Mr. Reagan would never have sent his negotiators to the conference table.
It appears that the belief of those who conceived of European unity as an instrument for coping with problems is being borne out.
In the words of one retired British diplomat, a man who watched in agony while his country waited to get into the EC and rejoiced when, 10 years ago, it succeeded, ''Imagine what it would be like if we were still 10 contending nations without the structures of cooperation we have so laboriously devised.''
He went on, ''We would be fighting each other for the small amount of prosperity available in the current climate. Some, the stronger, would win out. Others, the weak, would succumb.''
It seems a fair prediction that 1982 will be a less-than-good year - maybe another downright bad year - for Europe. The miracle is that for all the buffeting Europe is receiving these days, it wants to hold together.
When the will to continue begins to seep away - that will be the time to worry.