Surveying the state of the world last winter -- in Afghanistan, in the Middle East and in Western alliance relations -- a seasoned European diplomat in Bonn saw the outlines at least of one hopeful opportunity.
"Perhaps," he said, "the European Community will now pull itself together. Europe has always been built up through one crisis or another."
For months now, important West European voices critical of United States policies have been arguing that the time was at hand to prove that they are strong enough to consolidate Europe's often differing foreign policy views, perhaps even to influence what they consider a vascillating or weakened Washington line.
The strong statement on the Middle East issued here yesterday by the nine leaders of the European Community, as the Common Market is called, represented a victory for Europe in this respect.
Overcoming internal differences -- balancing France's desire for a bold Middle East initative against the concerns of West Germany and Britain not to offend Washington and the wishes of such small European states as Holland and Norway to side with Israel -- Europe produced a common position.
Its call for Palestinian self-determination and for the involvement of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the peace negotiations, nonetheless, marked a pro-Arab shift by the West Europeans and posed a challenge to Presidents Carter's efforts to revive the Egyptian-Israeli talks on Palestinian autonomy.
Why did Western Europe take this time to make its declaration, given the already strained conditions of alliance relations? They chose now, European dipolmats say, because they are generally worried about American leadership.
Specifically, they are worried that Carter's Camp David process can go no further without a broadening of the talks to include Palestinian representatives (which likely means the PLO) but that the United States is too bound to Israel to endorse something like that.
Also, the West Europeans judge Carter's actions on Afghanistan and Iran to be inconsistent and faulty. Thus they are increasingly reluctant to leave a peaceful solution for a region that holds Europe's vital oil supplies, as well as America's, solely dependent on U.S. initiative.
On top of this, U.S. military moves in the Persian Gulf hardly helped to reassure Europe about Washington's wisdom in the search for peace. Some Western European diplomats see the U.S. military moves as overreactive and potentially unsettling for the the extended diplomatic contact they are seeking with the Moslem nations.
In their final communique, the nine European leaders spoke of "traditional ties and common interests" with the Middle East, which "oblige them to play a special role and now require them to work in a more concrete way toward peace." s
At the same time, Western Europe seems to recognize it can hardly draw too far away from the United States on Middle East policy. Lacking America's military presence, the Europeans have little means of guaranteeing a final Middle East solution, and without the complete confidence of Israel, Europe's potential negotiating role is seriously limited.
Moreover, as much as they may wish to forge their own political directorate on world affairs, the West European leaders can barely depend on a lasting, solid consensus. Their recent record on other issues is filled with frayed compromises.
On Afghanistan, despite a general condemnation of Soviet involvement and a much-heralded neutrality plan for Kabul, the Europeans failed to overcome serious differences on what their response should be to the Kremlin.
The pretense of a common approach was undermined by French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's spur-of-the moment decision to meet with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev in Poland last month and by West Germany's isolation as the other major European powers decided to attend the Moscow Olympic Games.
On Iran, an attempt to repair relations with the United States by showing solidarity on economic sanctions to secure the release of American hostages was spoiled because none of the nine, least of all the British, was really prepared to make the sanctions cut deep.
Further, while Western Europe may desperately desire to present a more credible and united voice abroad, it tends to get bogged down at home. This has been much of the story during most of the last six months.
Until the end of May, quarrels over money and such arcane considerations as the lamb and mutton trade embroiled European Community discussion at a time when alliance security was becoming the prime Western concern.
With the bruising row over the community's budget resolved, the nine leaders used their two days on the blue waters of the Venetian lagoons to recover a sense of harmony and direction. West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt called for a thorough restructuring of the community's costly agricultural support program by 1982 -- that is, after both the upcoming French and West Germany national elections have passed.
But most of the summit discussion centered on world economic and political matters, which four of the leaders -- Britain's Margaret Thatcher, Italy's Francesco Cossiga, West Germany's Schmidt and France's Giscard -- will take up with Carter at the summit here next weekend. Japan and Canada will also attend.
Of key interest for the Europeans will be the articulation of some sort of Western global strategy on all those points on which differences have become sharply apparent in recent months: persuading the Soviets to get out of Afghanistan, ratifying Salt II and proceeding with European disarmament talks, playing China against the Soviet Union, stabilizing the Persian Gulf region, settling the Arab-Israeli disputes, and boosting industrialized nations' cooperation with the developing countries.
Additionally, the Europeans will want to air a range of economic concerns. The standing worry about inflation, reinforced here as the chief policy concern, has begun to be shaded by a growing anxiety about unemployment as economies in Europe -- including West Germany -- head into a slump.
Moreover, fears of a trade war with the United States and Japan emerged as a strong theme among West European heads of state. Their gloom was deepened by a review of the latest world oil price increases and the shocks they will be bringing to Europe's stunted economies and to the mounting problem of recycling billions of Arab dollars through the world's monetary system.
Worries about their own economies and internal politicking are likely to remain an offset to the West Europeans' ever-present desire for both greater independence from, and influence on, American policy. But one theme that clearly gained currency on this side of the Atlantic this year is the idea that Western foreign policy become a more collective exercise.
To the extent that is possible, it will surely require of European diplomats the trading skills of ancient Venetian merchants, the limited political design of this city's former noblemen, and the sense of when to duck after the fashion of today's gondolamen.