Government leaders from the 10 European Community countries were taking one small step toward greater unity last night, as they worked to approve potentially significant changes in the bloc's founding treaty. As this issue went to press, the leaders seemed on the verge of an agreement that, although far short of turning the countries into a ``United States of Europe,'' would signal a new willingness to sacrifice national interests for the common good, many analysts here believed. A change in the bloc's treaty would be the first in the organization's 28-year history.
The agreement that seemed to be emerging, following two days of often acrimonious discussions here, would help streamline European decisionmaking on several issues.
These include facilitating removal of national trade barriers by 1992 and enhancing coordination of foreign policy. Widening the powers of the European Parliament was also under discussion.
Officials said that the government leaders, who intiated the process of treaty reform at their summit meeting in Milan last May, were motivated to ``move Europe forward'' by at least two developments -- one of which is recent, the other imminent.
For months, European businessmen have been stepping up their pressure on EC governments to remove all national barriers to trade or face the prospect of Western Europe falling further behind the United States and Japan, especially in high-technology industries.
Businessmen argue that without a true ``common market,'' where goods and services can move as freely from one country to another in Western Europe as they do from one state to another in the US, European companies are at a considerable disadvantage vis-`a-vis their US competitors.
The European Parliament estimates that paperwork and border delays in Western Europe cost $50 billion a year, or about 2 percent of the combined gross national products of the EC countries.
One large European company says its profits would have been about 50 percent higher last year if it had been able to operate in a genuine European ``common market.''
The other development that spurred EC leaders to action was the realization that community lawmaking could be brought to a virtual halt after Spain and Portugal join the EC, which they will do on Jan. 1.
A requirement in the EC's founding treaty requires new legislation to be approved unanimously. Many analaysts insist that that rule is the biggest stumbling block to progress in uniting the EC countries. But even with the dropping of that rule, countries will still be able to veto measures that they believe threaten vital national interests.
No one believes that such new agreements will answer all the EC's woes.
National interests die hard. Lord Cockfield, the EC Commissioner, who spearheaded the move to drop national trade barriers, has cited no fewer than 300 reforms which must be enacted in order to achieve an integrated Europe by 1992. That will take an enormous effort.