WITH fewer than 1,000 days to the December 1992 date set for an integrated market from Copenhagen to Lisbon, the European Community is threatening to shift to at least a two-speed process for reaching its goal. Some countries - and issues - are moving more quickly toward integration than others.
Last week, five of the EC's 12 members signed historic accords to lift all internal border controls by the beginning of 1992, a year before the other members are supposed to reach the same goal.
A summit of Community leaders begins in Dublin today to discuss stepped-up economic-policy coordination. Some European monetary officials, including German Bundesbank President Karl Otto P"ohl, are suggesting a two-tiered monetary system that would first unite a ``core'' of the EC's fittest economies.
At the same time, new steps toward Europe's internal market are occurring every week: Recent examples involve abolition of rules that result in tens of millions of costly and time-consuming customs forms annually. In addition, measures taken last week should make Europe's airlines more competitive, with the goal of broadening choices and reducing fares.
Yet just as this market is taking shape, criticism is growing that there is little action on the so-called ``social Europe'' - legislation on Europe's workers, other ``people'' issues, and the environment.
An EC with different elements moving at different speeds is to be expected, some analysts say, especially given the economic diversity among 12 members that range from wealthy West Germany to a much poorer Portugal.
``By any definition, the Community at the moment is proceeding at breakneck speed,'' says Peter Ludlow, director of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. ``But to a certain extent the Community is going forward through experimentation by smaller subgroups'' that are the most prepared, he says.
``That has been true before, and now it seems to be popping up again prominently.''
Pointing to the agreement by France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg to end all customs and police checks at their common borders while enhancing law-enforcement coordination, Mr. Ludlow notes that these countries are among the EC's original members. ``These countries have a history of this kind of cooperation,'' he says.
Italy, the last of the Community's six original members, has asked to join the ``Shengen group,'' named after the Luxembourgeois village where the five-nation discussions began. Yet while Spain and Portugal have also expressed an interest, some observers believe it will be more difficult to coax along other members, especially Britain.
Citing its campaigns against terrorism and rabies, Britain says it will not give up border checks of non-EC residents, but that implies continuing the checking of EC residents and vehicles as well.
Europe's workers' unions especially are sounding alarms that efforts to harmonize conditions and protection for the Community's workers are not keeping pace with the single market.
``We have always been in favor of building a more competitive Europe. But from the beginning the social element has been dramatically absent,'' says Wim Bergans, spokesman for the European Trade Union Confederation here. ``The Community's companies are in a better position in the world with the single market. But if the workers who make up those companies don't see it working in their favor, too, they could turn against it.''
Mr. Bergans says organizations like unions start with a ``handicap'' because the impetus for the single market is the competitive world marketplace, not social issues. But he says such issues as part-time and temporary work, training and retraining access, free movement of workers, and subcontracting must be addressed on a Europe-wide level.
``As of 1993, a Portuguese construction company can come to work on projects in Belgium,'' says Bergans, ``but will they be able to come here with Portuguese workers and their Portuguese wages?''
EC leaders, except British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, signed on to a ``social contract'' in December, but it is more a set of principles than a binding document. The Commission, the EC's executive branch, has worked up a two-year plan for social issues, yet officials say the Community's social legislation is unlikely to match its market reform measures.
``We work on what is defined in the Community's treaties, and that's all,'' says a commission spokesman. ``It's the member countries who have wanted much of [employment and social issues] to remain outside the commission's competency.''
Commission officials say indications of momentum toward a two-speed Europe will be troubling only if the cases of countries refusing the rule become increasingly common, or if what are simply delays sought by some countries on carrying out some measures start to become more permanent.
``The Shengen accords showed the difficulty of agreeing on something as sensitive as borders,'' says a commission representative, ``but they also demonstrate the way to resolution. If they have the effect of pulling the others along, then it's not really a problem.''
Moving along at different speeds on any issue is not favored by the commission, however, as demonstrated by Commission President Jacques Delors's swift rejection of Bundesbank President P"ohl's suggestion of a ``two-speed'' EC monetary union.
At the same time, analysts like Ludlow and others say that with other Western European countries pushing for EC membership, and with Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Czechoslovakia in line behind them, Europe will continue moving along at varying rates.