When the leaders of the 10 Common Market nations failed to agree on crucial financial and agricultural issues at their Athens summit earlier this week, the quarter-century-old political and economic community found itself facing perhaps its severest crisis. Such an impasse must be deeply regretted. It is imperative that European leaders muster the resolve now essential to rebuild the community - as well as shore up the still-worthy goal of European unity.
In this regard, it is hard not to agree with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that only by coming face to face with the more pointed issues facing the community - as was done at Athens, although unsuccessfully - can further progress be achieved. ''Sometimes people only really tackle their problems when they get to the brink,'' she said, adding that ''the only way to address the long-term problems may be to let the cash (to maintain the community) run out.''
That, of course, is the present predicament of the European Community. Namely , that the ''cash'' - the financial backing from member states - is running out. The Athens summit ended without agreement on a new budget. The community is now close to bankruptcy.
It is ironic, of course, that the failure of the three-day summit comes at a time when many Europeans are expressing disenchantment with the United States over its leadership role in the larger Atlantic alliance.
The three-day Athens meeting suggests that the Europeans also have far to go in getting their political act together. And yet, Americans would be remiss in finding comfort in Europe's difficulties. The Common Market, for all its imperfections, remains a remarkable achievement for a region given to centuries of conflict.
Will the European nations at last resolve the Common Market's difficult agricultural problem? A whopping 62 percent of the European Community's $25 billion budget goes to prop up the system's agricultural sector. Europe produces enormous stockpiles of expensive commodities - which are then shipped to third-word nations at subsidized discounts where they depress world prices and undercut farm exports from the US, Canada, Australia, and other producing nations.
A way must be found to slow the rate of spending for agriculture. One logical solution: move to direct payments to farmers, as is done in the US.
One benefit from the current impasse is to give US and European trade negotiators more time to work out some satisfactory arrangement regarding farm exports. The US has said that it would retaliate if Europe tightens already severe import restrictions pertaining to US farm products. An agricultural ''trade war'' should be considered unthinkable on both sides of the Atlantic.
Finally, it would seem only equitable for the European Community to work out an appropriate compromise regarding member-nation budget contributions, as sought by Britain.