London — Members of the European Community: Britain Republic of Ireland West Germany Denmark Netherlands Belgium Luxembourg France Italy Greece Prospective members: Spain Portugal
Relations between Britain and the nine other members of the European Community have been thrown into a state of major crisis following a head-on clash over the price of food.
European Community officials say it is the most serious quarrel the EC has suffered since the mid-1960s.
In the British government, where enormous anger is being generated by what are seen as the high-handed tactics of a majority of EC members, there is talk of a possible British boycott of EC activities until a solution to the problem is found.
The quarrel erupted at a meeting of agricultural ministers in Luxembourg. For months now Britain has been refusing to support a 10 percent increase in the price of farm products that is being recommended by the European Commission until there is agreement on more equitable arrangements of the EC budget.
Britain thought it could go on blocking the increase by invoking a convention under which a member whose vital interests were involved could veto a policy change. But suddenly seven members of the 10-nation Community decided to brush the convention aside and vote for a farm price increase anyway.
Their move, made with the full support of the Commission (chief executive organ of the Community), caught Britain by surprise. It means that food prices throughout the Community will rise sharply, much to the annoyance of Britain.
It also means that, suddenly, the EC has moved to decisionmaking by majority vote rather than by consensus. In Britain, the Labour opposition, opposed to Britain's membership in the Community, is saying that their worst fears about the working methods of the Ten have been realized.
Meanwhile, Britain has failed to obtain agreement on a revised system of European Community budgeting. Under the present system the British pay a disproportionately high figure into Community coffers, thus helping to support the controversial food price rises just steamrollered through by the majority.
Only Denmark and Greece stood with Britain in opposing this week's majority vote.
The last time the Community faced a similar crisis was in 1966, when France had problems with her European partners over farm prices. On that occasion Gen. Charles de Gaulle boycotted all Community deliberations, leaving empty France's chair in Brussels.
The 1966 dispute was resolved by instituting the convention whereby a single member could veto a major policy shift. Now that same convention has been swept aside.
Immediately after the vote, British ministers went into a huddle over what to do.
One option is to demand an immediate meeting of EC foreign ministers and call for the farm price vote to be cancelled.
Another would be to institute a boycott and begin withholding British payments from the Community budget. The Labour opposition favors the second course, but Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher knows it would serve to deepen the crisis.
British officials say the by-passing of veto arrangements is bad for the Ten, as it means that a weaker EC nation can have its wishes disregarded by more powerful members.
In Brussels, however, there is little readiness to sympathize with Britain. Officials say the argument over farm prices was immobilizing the Community, with Britain ignoring the needs of countries like France, West Germany, Belgium, and Italy.
It is also pointed out that the EC stood solid with Britain over the Falklands crisis when it arose. Britain, however, chose to ignore the solidarity of its fellow members and pretend that the farm price question was separate.
The Europeans, pressed by their farming lobbies for a hike in agricultural prices, eventually lost patience with the Thatcher government.
In London pro-marketeers are disturbed by the implications of this week's vote. They talk of the continental members of the European Community riding roughshod over British arguments. Popular support for Community membership, already weak, could slacken even more.
Mrs. Thatcher, immersed in the Falklands crisis at what seems like its most critical phase, must now decide how to respond to this fresh European Community challenge without alienating her European neighbors.
Members of the European Community Britain Republic of Ireland West Germany Denmark Netherlands Belgium Luxembourg France Italy Greece Prospective members: Spain Portugal