Rising East-West tension, spiraling inflation, unemployment, and energy shortages pose a serious political and economic challenge to the European Community (EC) as it enters the 1980s.
But this challenge is also a tremendous opportunity, according to the EC's aggressive new Parliament -- directly elected for the first time last June and so, at least intheory, a voice for Europe as a whole.
At their Feb. 11-15 session here in Strasbourg, the Parliament heard a stern warning from Roy Jenkins, president of the European Commission, the EC's 13 -member administrative body appointed by the nine member states.
The highly respected former British Cabinet minister told the 410 Euro-parliamentarians that "we face no less than the breakup of the established economic and social order on which postwar Europe was built. . . . If we do not change our ways while there is still time, our society will risk dislocation and eventual collapse."
Mr. Jenkins backed up his warning with figures and forecasts: He said the EC growth rate is expected to drop from 1979's 3.3 percent to under 2 percent for 1980, unemployment to climb from 1979's 5.6 percent to over 6 percent this year, and inflation to move from 9 percent last year to over 11.5 percent for 1980. He also predicted the EC's external trade deficit would more than double compared with last year, thanks to oil price increases.
The EC Parliament's outward response to the poor performances and poorer prospects has been to attack Mr. Jenkins's commission.
During lively question-and-answer periods and heated debates in the Parliament, members have constantly criticized the commission for failing to initiate the urgent measures needed to deal with the threats facing Europe. They focus particularly on energy and budget issues in this session.
But members of the European Parliament explain that their real battle is not with the commission. It is with the third side of the EC triangle, the Council of Ministers.
As set up at present, the Parliament has a largely consultative role in the EC -- with the commission initiating common policies and decisions taken by the council, which is made up of Cabinet ministers from the nine member governments. (Depending on what policies are being decided, the council may include foreign ministers, agriculture ministers, finance ministers, or whichever ministers are appropriate.
The Parliament's first major drive to enlarge its powers came when the Parliament exercised its right to reject the EC's budget for 1980.
This action forces the EC to struggle along month by month under the same amount as last year -- which particularly stings the parliamentarians, who must survive on half-rations because their numbers have doubled.
Few expected the Parliament to use its power to reject the budget. So now that it has done so, the Parliament's other specific power (to fire the commission as a whole) is being taken more seriously.
Count Philip von Bismarck, seated in the center of the Parliament's impressive chamber here as a member of the Christian Democratic group, told the Monitor that the Parliament is also being given an opportunity to extend its powers.
From Parliament's perspective, the chief obstacle to a stronger and more effective Euro-Parliament comes from the Council of Ministers, a body representing individual governments and thus seen as jealously guarding national sovereignty.
Count Bismarck expects the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan to be only one of a series of similar challenges to the West over the years ahead.
"This kind of friction between the Russians and the Americans," he explained, "will demonstrate very clearly that Europe cannot have peace if Europe is not united."
And Mr. Bismarck, with broad support throughout the Parliament, feels deeply that a progressively stronger EC Parliament offers the best means of uniting Europe.
Parliamentarians here explain that last week's special debates on such urgent issues as Afghanistan, Cambodia, Andrei Sakharov, and nuclear safety show how far Parliament has moved the EC already.
They feel Parliament is leading Europe toward being able to reply with a single voice and effective action to such challenges as the energy crisis at home, the Afghanistan situation abroad, and to East-West wrangling in general.