Mitterrand shuttles around Europe to avert EC's collapse

President Francois Mitterrand is setting a hectic pace in his efforts to pull the European Community back from the brink of bankruptcy. The French leader is the current president of the EC. And he has been huddling, one by one, with his fellow European heads of state in a series of confidential encounters designed to see just how far each of them is prepared to go to break the deadlock over finances and agricultural policy.

Two weeks ago he was in Brussels and Copenhagen; last week he visited Milan and Dublin. The crucial meeting will come March 5 when he huddles for the second time in a month with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Since the EC summit meeting in Athens failed last December, only borrowing on future revenues has staved off financial collapse.

The moment of reckoning is near: Some mix of budget cuts and revenue increases must be reached at the March 19 summit in Brussels. After that, national campaigns for June's European Parliament will make it difficult for governments to make concessions that will alienate segments of the electorate.

''A terrible hush has descended on those tiny corners of Europe's chancelleries which are supposed to be responsible for grand strategy,'' writes Ian Davidson of the Financial Times. ''Will the Community survive as a functioning entity? If so, will it continue to survive as an economic boxing ring, the scene of endlessly repeated gladiatorial bouts, or will it succeed in placing these internal rivalries in the proper context, first of the economic competition between Europe and the rest of the world, second of Europe's security in a world straddled by two competitive superpowers?''

Mitterrand shares those concerns.

But he remains a committed European. In a recent speech before the Dutch parliament, he made a ringing appeal for more European cooperation on industrial and defense matters, even calling for cooperation on a defensive early warning station in space. ''If Europe were capable of launching into space a manned station that would permit it to observe, transmit, and thus counter any eventual threat, it would take a giant step toward its own defense,'' he said.

Such statements have evoked some puzzled looks around the continent. Not that dreams of more space cooperation are bad, critics say. But after the French refused to schedule more specific negotiations in prelude to the March summit, Britain's foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, expressed the common feeling that they are failing to discuss the details needed to resolve the Community's pressing, if mundane, financial mess.

''We are stony broke,'' he said.

Mitterrand responds that bookkeepers will not break the deadlock. He says the Athens summit bogged down because of haggling over agricultural subsidies.

His personal diplomacy is designed to forge a high-level political compromise. Then he expects specific contentions to be resolved easily.

The broad lines of what he envisages are clear. To the satisfaction of the Germans and the British, he proposes a fixed limit on the growth of Community spending, two-thirds of which is now eaten up by farm subsidies. In return, he expects revenues to be increased enough to make sure southern Europe's farmers remain adequately protected, especially when Portugal and Spain join the Community.

But enormous obstacles remain. Mrs. Thatcher continues to threaten to withhold part of Britain's payment as long as her country contributes more to the Community budget than it receives back. Dr. Kohl resists any significant increase in Community spending because his country already is the biggest net contributor.

Meanwhile, French farmers have made clear they will not accept serious cuts in their EC benefits. They have hijacked trucks containing British meat imports, torn up railroad lines, and smashed a local government office building.

So far, there have been few signs these difficulties are being overcome. After each of his meetings, Mitterrand has issued a bland statement expressing cautious optimism and flown on to the next capital.

Still, French officials are confident the difficult jigsaw puzzle will come together. In the end, they may be right.

Despite all the Community's problems, there is general agreement that Europe is better off with it than without it.

''There's no way that countries are going to let everything fall completely apart,'' says Philippe Moreau de la Farge of the French Institute for Foreign Relations. ''Economically, the Community will survive. After all, each state does more than 50 percent of their trade inside the Community. The real question is whether we will start working positively together on industrial and defense matters.''

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