VIENNA — THE European Community has at last firmed up a date for letting neutral Austria into its exclusive club.
The Vienna government and most Austrians are gratified. Negotiations should be finalized next year and Austria - the understanding goes - should be in the common market by 1995.
The EC could scarcely do less for a small country that made a major contribution to European balance through 40 years of cold war and one that always identified with the West, despite Soviet pressures to make it more susceptible to Moscow's influence.
The pledge to Austria, however, is viewed with mixed feelings in Eastern Europe. Economically beleaguered postcommunist governments there are asking: What about us?
Along with Austria, Norway, Sweden, and Finland have also been given the EC's green light. But what now for Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Balkan trio: Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania?
All seven, as their difficulties multiply in transition from centralized state controls to the free market, feel an increasing urgency in their need to be taken into Europe. But the urgency - and the wisdom behind it - is far from appreciated in the West.
Over the past 20 months, the EC has accepted them as ``associate members.'' But that is seen as a second-class substitute for full membership. Associate members receive trifling trade concessions that are tied to future limits. They look like protectionism rather than partnership.
The East Europeans acknowledge the EC's own recession problems. But these, they say, do not excuse the perpetuation of red tape blocking their full integration. One finance minister, Ivan Szabo of Hungary, recently accused West Europeans of creating a new ``economic iron curtain.'' Many Western analysts concur.
Writing in the latest issue of the US magazine, the International Economy, Financial Times correspondent Lionel Barber recalled the imaginative ``sense of purpose'' behind the Marshal Plan of 1946 to rebuild Europe.
Today, he said, the EC ``faces a challenge no less daunting.'' But instead of facing up to it, the EC shows a lack of leadership and a policy toward the former communist states ``which is self-centered, shortsighted, and downright dangerous.''
Community trade barriers operate in sectors that matter most to East Europeans - farm products, steel, and textiles. Yet, as Mr. Barber pointed out, the combined value of EC trade with Central and Eastern Europe in 1992 made up only 1.7 percent of its total exports and imports - less than its trade with Austria and Sweden.
This Western foot-dragging in liberalizing trade is now spilling over into questions of security.
To varying extents the East Europeans all want to get under the NATO defense umbrella. So far they are offered only a ``partnership for peace'' formula which in essence means no more than the ``association'' with the EC. Moreover, Warsaw and the rest are running into strong objections from a Russia that does not want NATO on its own doorstep.
Controversy between Moscow and its onetime satellite capitals is already conjuring up an atmosphere in which Poles, for example, talk of ``Yalta again,'' the wartime allies' accord that put postwar Eastern Europe in the Soviet sphere of influence. Uneasy East Europeans begin to suspect the new Russia of similar ideas.
Similarly, critics of EC policies see it intent on a ``fortress Europe'' rather than facilitating the free flow of goods, services, and capital envisaged in the Helsinki Accord, which was negotiated when cold-war divisions were still acute.
It is trade above all that Eastern Europe needs most. Just as the Marshal Plan rebuilt Western Europe, so loosening the rein on the East's goods will do more than anything to advance the region's economies. At the same time this liberalization will contribute to political stability, which is as important to the West as to the East.