Unemployment - once a molehill - has become a mountain across Western Europe.
''Not since the 1930s,'' argues a social-affairs expert at the European Community (EC), ''has the situation been so bad, or so foreboding.''
Unlike the United States where unemployment and growth take cyclical turns, unemployment in Europe has taken a more permanent form.
By the end of last year, the number of workers without work in the 10-nation EC had risen to 10 million, nearly 10 percent of the total labor force. One country, Belgium, suffered the highest unemployment rate (13 percent) recorded in Western Europe in 50 years.
But more than the lat% o/res, what worries policymakers most is the trend. After hovering steadily at the six million mark in the mid-1970s, unemployment suddenly began what became an uninterrupted rocket ride in May 1980, reaching 10 .2 million in December 1981 and showed no signs of stopping before hitting (at least) 15 million by 1985.
Some experts, including those at the Brussels-based European Trade Union Confederation, are predicting 18 million by mid-decade, nearly double the present figure. In 1973 unemployment in the EC stood at 3 percent. In the last year alone it has risen by 30 percent.
This predicament has been blamed on everything from monetarist economics (Britain, West Germany) to complete industrial collapse (Belgium). Of the three million people now out of work in Britain, 1.7 million lost their jobs since Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (''The Iron Lady") came to power three years ago wielding her monetarist stick. The opposition Labour Party is furious.
But while explanations abound, experts remain frankly as muddled about the real reasons behind the unemployment crisis as they are about finding ways out of it.
In some countries, such as The Netherlands, where unemployment rose by 45 percent last year against 1980 (to 9.5 percent), and Denmark (also 9.5 percent), welfare states tend to soothe the pain - but also to mask what some analysts call the ''creeping sickness'' of Western Europe's industrial base. They note, for example, Belgium's key industrial sector - steel - which, in a word, has collapsed.
Even in West Germany - once Europe's ''locomotive'' economy - unemployment has skyrocketed. In the year ending December 1981 joblessness rose by 52 percent , the highest 12-month jump in the EC, to 1.7 million.
The January mark, just released, topped 1.9 million, a 30-year high, or 8.2 percent of the workforce.
''It has come,'' said one frustrated West German analyst, ''completely by surprise.''
So far, as if shell-shocked, European governments have been hard-pressed to make a dent in the problem. French President Francois Mitterrand, a Socialist, who took the throne from center-right incumbent Valery Giscard d'Estaing early last year largely on his (number-one) pledge to brighten the unemployment picture, has watched the number of jobless rise from 1.6 million in December 1980 to two million 12 months later, or 9 percent of the work force.
Governments have been shaken, or have fallen, in large part because of their failure to fight rising unemployment effectively (France, Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands). Labor unrest has increased (Britain, Belgium). Protectionism has lifted its head (Britain, France, Italy). And human beings have been shattered (everywhere).
The president of the Brussels-based European Federation of Employers Associations (UNICE), Guido Carli, said recently that the answer was in ''improving industrial competiveness'' through ''a more flexible interpretation of competition rules and a more dynamic trade policy.''