EVER since the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, supporters of a Western European embrace of the new democracies of Eastern Europe have said the European Community is too self-absorbed, and would miss a historic opportunity to unify Europe.In its determination to pursue its own political and economic integration before admitting any new members, the Community was compared to a group of feasting rich men leaving their pauper neighbors to beg and quarrel in the cold. Like most characterizations, that one was an exaggeration. And last week's lunch here - bringing together the 12 foreign ministers from EC member countries and their counterparts from the three newly independent Baltic states - illustrates how things have changed for the EC, and Europe in general, since the failed Soviet coup of Aug. 19. Circumstances have forced the Community to open the banquet room door, and from now on the EC is going to find new Europeans at its table. Instead of "deepening" its own economic and political integration before "widening" its membership, the Community is now likely to have to juggle the two acts. "Ideally, we should change the [Community's] institutional structure first and then tackle enlargement," says Frans Andriessen, EC external affairs commissioner. "Now we shall have to do both together." "Our problem," says Pascal Lamy, head of Cabinet for EC Commission President Jacques Delors, "is going to be how to [mesh] our internal drive toward integration [with] a constructive response to events in the East." But a sign of just how difficult the inclusion of Eastern Europe is likely to be came last week when the EC Commission, trying to negotiate special association agreements with Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, asked EC foreign ministers to lower trade barriers to these countries' most competitive products. France, backed by Belgium and Ireland, balked at opening EC markets to eastern beef and lamb meat at a time when its own farmers are battling higher imports. Protests from Portugal put off a proposal for phasing out quotas on the three countries' textiles. "We're sending a very negative message to the countries to our east," said Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van den Broeck. The Community is sending more positive messages to other potential European members, those in the affluent European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Two EFTA members, Austria and Sweden, have already applied for membership. Their inclusion is less controversial because their economies are richer and more stable. But "bringing EFTA in doesn't help the Community solve its main challenge, which is stability and prosperity in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union," says Peter Ludlow, director of the Center for European Policy Studies here. Pointing to the "precedent" of Spain, Portugal, and Greece, Mr. Ludlow says, "We didn't admit them because of what they would bring to the Community, but because we wanted to stabilize democracy there after right-wing dictatorships." The Community must make a similar historic gesture to the East, he says. Commission officials, starting with Mr. Delors, insist that admitting eastern European countries quickly would prove disastrous for their uncompetitive economies. Ludlow argues, however, that the same kind of transitional economic arrangements set for the EC's southern members could be worked out for the East. "The key is that from the beginning Spain and Portugal were politically full members," says Ludlow. "Eastern Europe shouldn't be satisfied with anything less." But for Mr. Lamy, "The real problem of enlargement is whether it will be accompanied by the political will for integration." And the best test of that, he says, will be the EC's two constitutional conferences on economic and political union set to wrap up by December. Delors says the EC must use the current revision of the Treaty of Rome - the EC's constitution - to move more quickly and deeply toward political and economic integration. This would include initial steps toward the kind of EC security dimension some member countries have argued will be needed for addressing future Yugoslavia-type conflicts. Noting that a further treaty revision is already anticipated in the mid-1990s, Ludlow says he doesn't believe current events will greatly influence the conferences, at work since last December, except perhaps in the area of security. "Every day the Yugoslav crisis deepens, the day comes nearer when the EC will have to have some sort of military capability," he says. What senior officials like Lamy fear, however, is that the distractions from the East might lead to a "minimal package" from the conferences that could hamstring the EC's future effectiveness. "An inability to really come to grips with such problems as immigration, borders, and the environment," he says, "would be the price of that."