ON the eve of their meeting in Edinburgh, European leaders were laying long-term plans to tackle what may be their most exacting post-summit challenge: persuading people that the European Community cares about the quality of human living.
The task of proving the EC is not set to become an uncaring superstate was made harder when Switzerland voted to reject membership in the proposed European Economic Area (EEA), a linkup of the 12-nation EC and the five-nation European Free Trade Association (EFTA), to which Switzerland already belongs.
"The Swiss had much to gain from belonging to the EEA, but they have signaled that they want to stand apart," a British diplomat said. "This will do nothing to improve the EC's image in the eyes of people who already belong to it or are being urged by their governments to join."
"The Swiss vote makes it all the more imperative that after Edinburgh the EC is shown to be interested in the lives of the people within its borders," the diplomat added.
Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Austria have applied for EC membership. The Swiss government applied in May, but the referendum result may force the government to withdraw the application.
Attitudes in Norway are veering away from joining the EC. An opinion poll conducted in early December suggested that 60 percent of the population opposes Norwegian membership.
British critics of the treaty say Switzerland's "no" vote and Norway's unenthusiastic mood indicated the EC was seriously out of touch with Europeans. Prime Minister John Major, host to the Edinburgh summit, has said repeatedly that he wants to see early enlargement of the EC. He is also a supporter of the EEA.
When he heard the result of the Swiss vote, Major redoubled efforts to ensure that at Edinburgh the Maastricht Treaty on closer European integration could be "sold" to citizens of the EC.
British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd flew to Brussels Monday for a meeting making last-minute preparations for the Edinburgh summit. British officials said the meeting at EC headquarters centered mainly on finance and "subsidiarity" - Community jargon for making decisions at a level closer to citizens.
Diplomatic sources in London said Britain wanted 71 items of EC legislation abolished so that the power of the European Commission could be transferred to individual governments. Environmental, consumer, and social policies were the targets of the British campaign. The `human face' dilemma
Convincing Europeans that the EC is a caring organization and that its policymaking is not remote from ordinary citizens was only one of the hurdles Major faced in the run-up to Edinburgh.
Others included finding a way around Denmark's rejection of the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum last April; answering complaints from poorer EC countries such as Spain, Portugal, and Greece that they are not getting enough economic help under next year's proposed EC budget; and addressing the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
There are signs that reconciling the people of Europe to the Maastricht Treaty will be the toughest problem. A Dec. 6 Gallup poll found that 75 percent of Britons want a referendum on the Treaty. Major has flatly rejected such calls.
William Cash, a leading anti-Maastricht Conservative member of parliament, said: "At least the Swiss have had a referendum. If we in Britain were allowed to have one there would be an overwhelming vote against Maastricht." The Gallup poll however appeared to contradict him, suggesting that Britons would vote for the treaty by 55 percent to 45 percent.
Major has described the EC's problems as "rather like Rubic's Cube" - they interlock, and it is hard to know where to begin solving the puzzle.
John Smith, Britain's Labour opposition leader, says the EC's "human face" dilemma is essentially an economic matter. Smith favors ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, but has accused the government of failing to put unemployment high on the Edinburgh agenda. George Robertson, Labour's spokesman on Europe, called for "a Europe-wide recovery program ... at the heart of the summit." "The rising tide of jobless in the EC have been betrayed," he said. Unless the Community mounts a serious attack on unemplo yment, now over 16 million across the EC, it will widely be seen as a faceless entity, he said.
Major and his supporters acknowledge the difficulty the EC has in persuading the people of Europe that what governments are doing in their name will be of long-term benefit to them.
Since Britain assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the European Council in July, Major has spoken often of his aversion to a European super-state, and has sworn to tame the Brussels bureaucracy that he argues has been largely responsible for alienating EC citizens. Devolving decisionmaking
Major has stressed the need for "subsidiarity," which he defines as a policy of devolving decisionmaking as far as possible to the EC member governments and parliaments, rather than allowing it to occur at the center in Brussels. But four days before he flew to Edinburgh, where he planned to get unanimous support for the policy of subsidiarity, the principle on which it is based came under attack. The European Policy Forum, a London-based think-tank, published a report Monday arguing that subsidiarity al one would not prevent unelected EC officials from gaining more power than governments wish to give them.
"It is far from clear whether subsidiarity could deliver the protection against creeping encroachment from Brussels its protagonists promise," the report said.