WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Not so long ago, it seemed to many that Britain's Margaret Thatcher was the principal obstacle to construction of a federal union of the European Community's 12 member states. In Brussels today, those must seem like the good old days.
This is a time of trouble for the community. The Gulf War was the first test of its capacity to forge a common foreign and military policy. It flunked. The very effort revealed that there is no common European diplomacy or military policy because there are no foreign-policy views shared by all members. In addition, there are no military forces -- nor will there be in the foreseeable future.
Other problems are more pressing. A backlash is growing against the community's permanent bureaucracy in Brussels (the European Commission) and its president, Jacques Delors. Member states complain publicly that the commission is arrogating too much power to itself, behaving as if it were a 13th member of the community rather than its bureaucracy. Members have rejected most of Mr. Delors' recommendations and have adopted policies that he and the commission oppose. Bringing the commission under control and making it responsive have become urgent, publicly stated objectives of several member governments.
As Mr. Delors and the commission push from Brussels for new steps toward European union, Germany has joined Great Britain, Denmark, Luxembourg and others in resisting further moves toward a single monetary system.
Meanwhile, as members resist unification, more and more non-member governments in Europe are pounding at the gates seeking to join the EC, particularly the new democracies of Eastern Europe.
In a divided Europe, the European Community united lTC democracies of the West against the dictatorships of the East. It was NATO against the Warsaw Pact, translated into the political and economic spheres. Once the people of Eastern Europe were free to choose their own governments, they chose democracy. Once they were free to choose their own associations, they chose the European Community.
Their desire for membership puts heavy moral and political pressure on the community. Will it turn away the new democracies, whose economic and political development is so vital in the long term to the continent? Dare they?
The very thought of admitting Eastern Europe brings opposition from those, like Portugal, Spain and Greece, who fear that poor Eastern European countries would divert EC funds that might otherwise go to its own poorest members. It arouses opposition as well from ardent ''Euro-federalists'' who are convinced that ''widening'' membership before ''deepening'' it would weaken ties within the community.
The desire to neither accept nor reject Eastern Europe has already produced a proposal for an intermediate step of ''association'' that might precede full membership.
France's President Francois Mitterrand was in Romania last week assuring the Romanians that their future lies in Europe. ''We are all of the same continent. We are all products of the same civilization. We should share the same future,'' he said. But not yet. First, Romania should apply for ''associate'' status. Later it can hope for membership.
Today, the most important questions about the European Community remain open -- its powers, members, borders and relations with others are not decided. The EC was an important product of the old world order. Can it survive the end of the era in which it was born?
7-Jeane Kirkpatrick is a syndicated columnist.