Who's being protectionist now?

THE United States has served notice that it would be ``unacceptable'' if economic integration of the European Community restricted American access to the 12-member common market. Peter McPherson, deputy Treasury secretary, issued the formal warning in a speech last week in Washington.

But meanwhile many American trading partners have blasted the trade bill just passed by Congress as ``protectionist.''

So who's being protectionist - the US, or the EC?

Both, probably, to an extent.

The EC is working toward economic integration, or development of a ``single market,'' by 1992.

The tariff barriers are gone, but many nontariff barriers to trade and investment within the EC remain.

For the EC member states truly to open up to one another economically is expected to create a certain deregulatory boom - more jobs, lower prices - but also more competition within the Community.

It's hard to escape the impression that in their bones, most of the EC members feel that that's competition enough, and that they aren't going through this complicated exercise just to make it easier for American and Japanese companies. As the internal walls come down, the external walls seem to be hardening.

This is not to say that a number of American businesses don't see ``1992'' as a great opportunity.

But the US posts some specific concerns:

``Reciprocity'' rather than ``national treatment'' is the proposed standard for non-EC access to the EC market for financial and other services not already covered by other multilateral trade agreements. That is, it isn't enough that the US tax a European bank in the US like any other American bank (national treatment); rather, unless the US matches European laws governing taxing of banks, US banks could be excluded from Europe.

Non-EC firms are not being invited to take part in the creation of European industrial standards. In the US, where private groups, rather than the government, develop such standards, it is standard practice to invite participation by all interested parties.

``Residual restrictions'' on Japanese car imports into France and Italy - not in strict accord with the Treaty of Rome, anyway - might be expanded Community-wide rather than just done away with.

At this point, both sides are talking perceptions, talking about what they fear might happen; ``1992'' is a ``process,'' EC officials say, and they can't be expected to give away all their bargaining chips at once.

Meanwhile, Europeans are wondering whether they are next in line for the kind of bashing on trade issues the Japanese have been getting from the US.

``Unfair'' tends to be in the eye of the beholder. The new trade bill, which President Reagan is expected to sign, is much less protectionist than its vetoed predecessor, but it still gives the federal government a more activist posture on trade than hitherto - a posture, dare we say, more like that of the Japanese, or the Europeans.

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