What is the real crisis gripping the European Community? Is it about its own finances - the top agenda item at this week's Athens summit meeting of the 10-nation grouping? Or is it a deeper malaise caused by the international recession and (for Europeans) unsatisfactory signals from the Reagan White House?
Presummit commentaries on the Athens gathering of European Community leaders might suggest the EC is on its economic and financial uppers, short of cash and hovering on the brink of bankruptcy.
In reality that impression is wrong. Despite the unfavorable world economic climate, the Community is still a rich and dynamic trading entity whose citizens for the most part remain prosperous. But it has political problems.
The Athens agenda, consisting of discussion on reforming the Community's internal financial arrangements and improving its farm policies, is about housekeeping.
Sharp and damaging arguments between Britain and France, and between the EC's Executive Commission and the Council of Ministers, continue to arise because there is a much deeper crisis beneath the level of formal debate.
According to a senior Brussels official, the Ten have been arguing about housekeeping because the economic climate worldwide has eroded the confidence on which unifying moves of the 1960s and early '70s were based.
The official continued: ''Six or seven years ago there was still optimism in the air, and that spirit made it easier for members to compromise with each other in the interests of all. Now they are each fighting their own corner, and in such an atmosphere compromise is hard to arrange. That is why the questions confronting the Athens summiteers have been unresolved not just for months but for years.''
Analysts of the Community's plight tend to go outside the EC to explain the dimensions of the problem.
Some key points made:
* Spain and Portugal are knocking at the door of the Community, but economic concerns of existing members are impeding their entry. More members, it is suggested, would mean more problems.
* The Reagan White House has not been helpful in creating conditions that would make it easier for the Europeans to sort out their differences. It is alleged that United States tariff and interest rate policy has impeded the EC's recovery.
* Europe's anxieties extend beyond finance and economics to defense. There is concern in France about West German jitters over cruise and Pershing II missiles. If Paris and Bonn lack trust in each other, the core of the EC is threatened.
In London on his way to the Athens summit, EC president Gaston Thorn made the point that the Community needs not only fresh cash, but also confidence. He said he hoped an end to the long-running quarrel on Community financing would create conditions for a fresh start.
But sceptics doubt whether even total resolution of the EC's financial problems would produce the ''new beginning'' Mr. Thorn is seeking. The industrialized West is moving through a prolonged economic crisis that has foreshortened the horizons of even those political leaders who a few years ago were convinced apostles of accelerating European unity.
One of them said: ''The spirit of unity which produced the European Community in the 1950s derived nourishment from economic prosperity. Britain's bickering about her budget contributions to the EC is a reflection not of impatience or greed, but of uncertainty about her own and Europe's future.''
That future is not just a question of economics. Perceptions of Western Europe's place in the world and of its relations with American friends enter the picture. The difficulty is a sense of insecurity that colors EC deliberations on issues large and small.