The leading nations of Western Europe will soon be required to make a series of decisions that will determine their political future for years to come. They must determine whether the 10-nation European Community will be the matrix of their attempts to achieve unity - or choose some other framework for collective endeavor.
Ironically, it is in Britain - for the past decade the EC's enfant terrible - that debate about Europe's future is at its most intense.
Leaders of all main political groups in the British Parliament have been weighing in with radical ideas about what Europeans should be trying to achieve in an era of East-West confrontation and world recession.
In a speech in Brussels the foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, began by declaring, ''I am a European,'' and proceeded to argue that, instead of focusing on narrow economic issues, the EC should find a stronger and more persuasive political voice in world affairs.
The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, contributed the thought that the European Community is not truly European. Kinnock, leader of a party whose attitude toward the EC has tended to swing between ambivalence and downright hostility, called for a new European conference at which the future of the continent could be charted. East as well as West European states should be invited to attend, he suggested.
Next the joint leader of the Social Democratic-Liberal alliance, David Owen, stepped up to the rostrum to assail the ''sterility'' of the current European debate. A former Labour foreign secretary, Dr. Owen proposed that the EC should move beyond economic concerns and seek unity also in a program of coordinated defense and security, separate from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Intervention by these three ''heavyweight'' politicians in the debate about Europe comes at a moment when the Community is in deep crisis over its internal finances.
Member governments have been unable to iron out inequities in the way community funds are collected and distributed. In particular they have failed to find a formula for avoiding the great bites out of EC funds made by the need to subsidize farmers.
At the same time, West Europeans are preparing for elections in June to choose a new European Parliament - the body that is supposed to monitor and energize decisions taken in Brussels by EC political leaders and top Community civil servants.
It is widely felt that for the EC to prosper, the parliament must acquire more authority so that West Europeans have a sense of the democratic roots of the community to which they belong.
The contributions by Howe, Kinnock, and Owen about Europe's future have thus been made against a background of sensitized public awareness that the EC faces choices of a fundamental character. The president of the European Commission, Gaston Thorn of Luxembourg, has asserted that if the EC does not quickly find solutions to its economic problems, the 10-nation grouping is likely to rip apart.
In British terms, the significance of the current debate lies in the apparent assumption by all political parties that, willy-nilly, Britain is nowadays part of Europe and that talk of withdrawal from the EC is a dead letter. The debate is about the kind of community Britons wish to belong to, not, as in the past, about whether belonging is a good thing.
The most radical of the proposals being canvassed are those of Mr. Kinnock. In effect, he is saying: The EC is not large or open-minded enough to embody true European aspirations.
Thirty years ago, at a conference at Messina, Sicily, the concept of a European economic community was evolved. Kinnock is calling for a ''new Messina.'' This time the canvas should be much broader, he says.
Mr. Kinnock wants to harness European consciousness regardless of the East-West divide. As a Labourite, he suggests the spirit motivating Europeans should be socialist rather than capitalist.
Dr. Owen's thinking is radical in a different way. To speak of the development of the EC and of a European defense identity within NATO as separate matters is artificial, he says. There should be a linkup between the two concepts.
Nor does he accept that the United States would have grounds for complaint if Europeans began to work toward a regional view of their own defense and security. It is because West Europeans have seemed so divided on defense matters , he says, that successive US administrations have tended to be exasperated with their partners across the Atlantic.
Nobody quite knows where the current debate about Europe will lead. At meetings of EC leaders in Brussels and Paris within the next four months, attempts will be made to hammer out solutions to the Community's financial difficulties.
If nothing is done, the EC will simply run out of money and not be able to sustain expensive ongoing projects like the agricultural and regional funds.
Even if solutions are found, many European commentators think radical ideas about the shape of Europe in the future must be entertained.
For example, Spain and Portugal are knocking on the Brussels door, seeking membership in the EC. Accountants might argue that their inclusion would weaken Western Europe economically.
Leaders like Sir Geoffrey Howe, Neil Kinnock, and David Owen put the stress less on economics and more on political and strategic coherence. How can Western Europe be strong, they ask, when the Iberian Peninsula does not figure in its collective decisionmaking?
British politicians hope the thoughts now afloat will work their way into debate in Brussels about the crucial choices now faced by the EC. They are also counting on the vigor of the new ideas to sharpen the Europewide political debate that will accompany campaigning for election of a new European Parliament in June.