EVERY GREAT STEP in building the European Common Market has seemed, at the time, to be technical, remote and rather boring. In that tradition the first direct elections for the European Parliament, over the past few days, are judged by universal opinion to have been apathetic, insubstantial and dull. It is curious that all of these dull events, over nearly three decades, should have spectacularly changed the life of Europe.
When six Western European countries set up the Coal and Steel Community in 1951, it was a useful idea but, essentially, a commercial matter. When the six decided in 1957 to abolish internal tariffs over the following years, that was a constructive development, but tariffs are hardly a stirring subject. When the six admitted three new members in 1972, the decision was long overdue. When earlier this year they set up a European Monetary System - crucial move toward a joint currency and therefore a common economic policy - most people shrugged it off as something that none but the experts could understand, or needed to.
The European community now has a population slightly larger than that of the United States, and a gross national product that is just about equal to this country's. It is one closely integrated economy with nine governments. The election of the European Parliament is a move toward community control of the powerhouse that the community has created. Once again, Europeans approached this great event with attitudes varying only in their degrees of inconcern and boredom. But hardly any of them could doubt that the election is the seed of even greater change.
The voting gave the largest number of seats to the center-right. The socialists generally did pretty well. The big losers were the parties that oppose the idea of a closer European community. Britain's Labor Party, which still harbors doubts, was beaten even more badly than in last month's national election. In France, the Gaullists suffered a terrific defeat. That, rather than any conventional shifts in rights and lefts, is the most interesting message in these returns.