THE European Community is in trouble. It has been stymied for some time, but the current crisis could lead to a breakdown which would be damaging to Europe and US interests. The key issues - the British budget share and capping farm-support costs - led to the collapse of the Athens summit in December and the one in Brussels last week. Yet they seem petty compared with the stakes.
The community, which grew out of a 1950 French initiative, was one of the formative postwar measures. It had three aims: End the historic Franco-German hostility by making them partners; wrest economic benefits from a single European market instead of protected national economies; give a unified Europe influence over its world affairs commensurate with its population and economic potential.
But residual nationalism and parochialism posed greater obstacles than had been foreseen. For a decade Britain, with illusions from the past, refused to join. In France, de Gaulle regained power and reasserted French claims to independence, blocking progress of the European Community and vetoing Britain's first effort to enter. Though joining a decade later, Britain has been a half-hearted member. And in all the member states, entrenched politicians and bureaucracies have been resistant to relinquishing powers to the community.
Thus, the European Community falls short of its initial hopes. But its achievements should not be minimized.
Institutionally, of course, the community is far from a federal or confederal structure: the Commission of the European Communities has limited authority and the community operates by bargaining among the members. Yet there is an effective communities court and an elected parliament, though with few real powers.
Whether the community survives and goes forward will matter greatly for Europe and the US. Its three original aims are still valid and urgent. The pressing economic needs of Western Europe - unemployment, outmoded heavy industries, lagging high-tech industry - can only be met within the European framework. The growing pressures from within and from the US for Europe to take a larger role in its own defense and in world affairs will require a joint European response. And a decline of the community coupled with uncertainty about NATO could erode the existing stability and confidence in Europe and arouse divisive distrust.
The issues which now divide the European Community can surely be resolved by or before the next summit in June. Indeed the other nine have accepted that with its lower gross national product, Britain's net share of the community budget should be substantially reduced, and when the summit meeting broke up last week the gap as to the rebate had been narrowed to about $200 million. All agree that the bloated agricultural program, which absorbs two-thirds of the budget and will bankrupt the European Community by September, must be capped while community funds must be increased. (The Irish are the roadblock to cutting the costly dairy supports).
Settling these disputed issues will keep the community afloat. But alone, that will not produce the necessary new initiatives. They will require political commitment and leadership which have been lacking. There the outlook is not encouraging. Recently, Francois Mitterrand of France has been working hard to resolve the current disputes and to initiate wider cooperation in defense and other fields. Helmut Kohl of West Germany seems receptive at least in general terms. But Margaret Thatcher appears to be a little Englander at heart, unmoved by any broader European conception. Moreover, as the community expands, newer members like Greece or Spain and Portugal may be obstacles to new initiatives.
Outsiders, like the US, can do very much to speed or facilitate the process. Indeed, some of the measures proposed for doing so would inhibit progress. Thus the threat to withdraw US forces would be most unwise. Under present conditions that would not spur European action - it would probably do just the reverse and undermine the stability and cohesion constructed over so many years. Our best hope is to support those Europeans who do see the probable consequences of passivity and are trying to foster concrete steps toward joint European action as rapidly as feasible.