AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- Europe will look into its own future over the next few days and try to decide if the idea of real union is likely to work.
To this end, the leaders of the 12 states of the European Community are assembling at the tidy little town of Maastricht, south of here.
"If the community fails at Maastricht, it would be the start of its decline," French President Francois Mitterrand has warned.
These men -- among whom Mr. Mitterrand is a veteran (they are all men now that Margaret Thatcher is gone) -- represent the dynamic center of the continent. Every other state in the region -- the Scandinavians in the north, the emerging democracies in the east, the Baltic and Balkan countries, Turkey -- all are drawn to the center, the European heartland.
They all desire, in greater or lesser degree, to be part of what is happening here, to benefit from a free-trade area that will encompass more than 380 million people in countries stretching from the Arctic to the Mediterranean, a bloc of states that will account for 40 percent of the world's trade.
This describes the configuration of the community when the European Free Trade Association countries of Austria, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Finland begin their association with the EC in 1993. If the community later takes in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the three Baltic states, perhaps Malta, its population could rise by an additional 100 million.
This is the process of widening. That's for later.
Now, at Maastricht, is the time for deepening, tightening, deciding such critical issues as whether there will be a single currency and a complete political union, requiring each state to surrender a great deal of sovereignty to the center.
For that reason, it is not absolutely certain that the treaties will be signed. All amendments to the Treaty of Rome, the EC's basic document, must be by unanimous agreement, and Britain still offers the possibility of a veto.
Even though some analysts contend that it is a mistake to view the encounter of the 12 here as a contest between Britain and the rest, London is opposed to all or most of the others on many of the seven major areas the proposed amendments encompass.
Britain does not want to commit itself to monetary union to the degree the others do.
"We will not have a single currency imposed upon us," a government spokesman in London said at midweek, echoing Prime Minister John Major.
It will not abide intrusion by the EC into what it regards as its domestic affairs -- the setting of working hours, maternity leave, minimum wages, control over immigration and so forth.
This is called the "social" dimension of the treaties, and a Dutch official said late Friday that it was where Britain probably would set up the strongest resistance. "It is the biggest problem," he said.
Britain is also averse to the 12 making foreign policy decisions binding on all and "unenthusiastic" about majority voting on more decisions.
Britain's resistance poses two questions, of immediate and of long-range concern: First, is Britain likely to sink the summit through a veto, and thereby retard for who knows how long the drive toward unity? Second, is Britain truly a creative and constructive member of the EC? Would the 12 be better off if they were only 11?
Michael Franklin, author of "Britain's Future in Europe," believes that Mr. Major could not veto the draft treaties at Maastricht without betraying his own promise to bring Britain "closer to the heart of Europe."
Mr. Franklin also believes that Britain will not countenance a large role for the EC in deciding who can enter the country, what kind of asylum regulation it will have or what kind of labor laws prevail.
Britain will not sign a treaty with the word "federal" in it. The word appears twice in the draft documents.
These matters go to the nature of sovereignty, Mr. Franklin said. The word federal, for instance, "has an enormous psychological importance. In Britain, the opposite of federal is sovereignty."
Britain must also have an "opt-out clause" on monetary union, Mr. Franklin said. This would allow it to decide at the last stage of the process, probably in 1996, whether to accept the single currency.
That much is understood, but Mr. Major will be after compromise on the other issues.
The question of whether Britain is a valuable member of the EC yields answers in apparent contradiction. From the day it went into the community in 1973, Britain has been the most reluctant ** partner. It hangs back, resists. It questions nearly every initiative that emerges from the center. It is apparent that Britain does not want to be a part of a greater whole. It likes the EC as a union of sovereign states.