COPENHAGEN — Eastern Europeans are running up against growing signs their West European neighbors - confronting their own economic slippage - are not backing up talk of economic assistance with commensurate action.
"The gap between promises and action is a permanent feature of our relations with the West," says Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, Polish undersecretary of state for European integration and foreign assistance.
Eastern Europe's frustrations were on display at a 30-nation economic conference this week organized by the Danish government, bringing together members of the European Community, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
Bridging the East-West economic gap may be Europe's most crucial task. Yet the tone of the two-day meeting ending April 14 was set by new indications of Western Europe's retreat into protectionism.
The EC touts the more than $1 billion in economic and technical assistance it has allocated to Central and Eastern Europe over three years.
Yet after recently placing Draconian limits on Eastern steel, textiles, and food imports, the EC last week threw a one-month embargo on meat and milk products from Central and Eastern Europe. The embargo follows the outbreak of a livestock disease in Italy that reportedly was traced to a live-animal shipment from the former Yugoslavia.
Central and Eastern European officials said the embargo exemplified knee-jerk protectionism, because there were no suggestions the disease was a problem elsewhere in their region. Lumping all of the former communist countries together "smacks of a most regrettable survival of the notion of an eastern bloc," says Geza Jeszenszky, the Hungarian foreign minister.
Hungary, which may lose more than $50 million in exports due to the embargo, retaliated with restrictions on EC products, and several neighboring countries followed suit.
Even EC trade commissioner Sir Leon Brittan warned of "unwarranted alarmism" across the EC about competitive pressures from the East.
EC farmers, fishermen and steelworkers have attacked Eastern imports, but the EC has built up a commanding trade surplus with the East - $1.3 billion.