Helsinki — Europe's small neutral states face a challenge to their freedom and prosperity. The challenge is not an increased Soviet military threat. Rather, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Austria fear a commercial disaster as the European Community moves toward political and economic integration.
``Our biggest foreign policy problems involve trade policy,'' a high-ranking Finnish diplomat says. ``More than two-thirds of our exports go to the European economic space so what happens in the European Community is of vital importance to us.''
Under an agreement between their own six-member European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the 12-nation Brussels-based European Community, the neutral countries now enjoy free access to Western European markets.
But the community just published a ``White Paper'' outlining steps to abolish all internal trade barriers by 1992, and EC leaders argue that one cannot continue to benefit from free access to their markets without taking on greater responsibilities.
``You cannot have the benefits of an organization you do not want to join,'' declared Willy de Clercq, an EC commissioner this summer. ``Ireland is a neutral country and perfectly happy within the European Community.''
Under this pressure, some EFTA members are considering EC membership. After narrowly rejecting membership in 1972, NATO member Norway eventually is expected to reapply.
Earlier this year, the Austrian government appointed a legal committee to explore whether the 1955 State Treaty would permit it to join. The answer was yes.
Swedish conservatives and businessmen also favor membership.
``Sweden should declare to the European Community that we are ready to take our responsibility in building a free Europe,'' the conservative Stockholm daily Svenska Dabladet said after Mr. de Clercq's visit.
But Swedish officials disagree. They say the EC's political goals would compromise their country's neutral role.
``There's a need for neutrals to help mediate between the two blocs, to provide UN peacekeeping forces, to offer good offices,'' says Pierre Schori, Sweden's undersecretary of state for foreign affairs. ``You can't coordinate on foreign policy and security and call yourself neutral.''
Finland's case is sensitive. Swedish officials fear if Sweden enters the Common Market, Finland would become more isolated and would be pushed into more dependence on the Soviet Union. Finnish diplomats agree their country's cooperation treaty with Moscow rules out membership.
With membership excluded, both Sweden and Finland are preparing for long, drawn-out negotiations with the Common Market. They hope to convince de Clercq and other officials in Brussels that it would be harmful for Western Europe to hinder trade with the neutrals.
``We offer the Common Market considerable benefits, starting with a large market,'' explains Carl Johan Aberg, Sweden's undersecretary of state for foreign trade. ``EFTA is the Common Market's largest trading partner, larger than the United States.''
To further ease trade, EFTA plans to copy EC moves toward a unified market. Industrial norms in thousands of products are being changed to comply with community regulations. Finland, for example, recently switched its standards on electrical equipment.
``If we want access to the Common Market, then we will have to pay something for it,'' concludes Max Jacobson, former Finnish representative to the United Nations and president of Finland's Council of Economic Organizations.