AS senior officials of the European Community prepared for an all-day meeting April 6 on how to give new impetus to the EC's Single Market, some officials commented sardonically that the range of discussion was too modest.
"Maybe we should be looking beyond the Single Market at how to get the whole Community moving again," said one senior official.
His comment reflects the glum mood at EC headquarters in Brussels, where the activism of previous years has been supplanted by a low-profile holding pattern.
The EC was supposed to be in the midst of implementing provisions of the Maastricht Treaty on deeper economic and political integration, which was to have taken effect at the beginning of the year. But the treaty remains in limbo, awaiting the uncertain outcome of ratification procedures in Britain and Denmark.
In addition, the razor-thin victory of France's referendum on Maastricht last September and an earlier "no" from the Danes the first time they voted, plus a succession of unencouraging public-opinion surveys, indicate just how poorly EC government is viewed.
"The Community's situation is very bad," says one official close to EC Commission President Jacques Delors. "It's common for people to say that the Community advances in good times and falls back in bad, but no one's too sure when the sky is going to clear this time."
Mr. Delors himself told the European Parliament recently that "the very idea of a united Europe is in peril."
Comments like this have led to a fresh round of commentary on "Euro-pessimism," a malaise that first struck the Community after the oil shocks of the 1970s. But one senior official says the Community's condition is more accurately "Euro-disappointment," because it results from several specific points on which the EC has "fallen short" of Europeans' expectations.
Those points include:
* Europe's economic downturn, and especially the psychologically deflating juxtaposition of postwar record-high unemployment, and the arrival of the EC's long-touted Single Market.
* The war in Yugoslavia, and the EC's inability to take decisive action against armed conflict in Europe.
* Inability to ratify the Maastricht Treaty on schedule, a failure that has broken a sense of momentum and replaced it with a feeling of drift.
EC leaders are especially sensitive to criticism of the Community's response to Yugoslavia. They are quick to say that the United States, after President Clinton's more interventionist rhetoric during the campaign, has not performed any better.
Still, "we have to recognize that the Community simply has not been of a level to match either the Yugoslav crisis or the economic downturn," says one Commission source. That the EC, which aspires to a common foreign policy, appeared to be of no consequence in curtailing the Balkan violence leaves average Europeans wondering what purpose "more" Europe would serve.
The same is true on the economic front, he adds: When what is essentially an economic community, grouping several of the world's weightiest economic players, falls victim to a global slowdown and finds itself once again waiting for salvation from a strengthening US economy, that too plants doubts about the Community's utility.
Especially depressing for Europeans is the fact that unemployment - hitting 1 of 9 Europeans - cuts across all social categories. Young professionals and university students who have been among the most enthusiastic about "constructing Europe" are losing jobs or finding few new jobs in their areas of study.
Yet EC officials insist that while they may be "keeping to the shadows," as one said, the EC is working "behind the scenes" on issues that will demand resolution once the fate of the Maastricht Treaty is known, probably this summer or early fall.
The EC Commission will present an economic "growth initiative" April 19. Work is proceeding on implementation of the next stage of European monetary coordination, the creation of a European monetary institute.
In addition, the EC is negotiating membership agreements with Austria, Sweden, Finland, and Norway, and putting experts to work on the next round of institutional reforms set for 1996.
All these issues merit extensive public debate, but for now EC officials are leaving the debate to national leaders to take up in their own countries.
The EC's low profile is most striking concerning Denmark. Last year numerous Brussels bureaucrats headed north to campaign in favor of a Danish "yes" vote on Maastricht. This year the Community's humbled leadership vows that not one EC representative will take part in the campaign. Says one official, "With so much riding on the outcome, we don't want to take the risk."