Europe learns to wield power through sanctions

The world's largest trading bloc is displaying a new readiness to use its economic power to influence the course of world events.

At every meeting of European Community (EC) foreign ministers in recent months, the question of imposing, lifting, or threatening to impose trade sanctions against one offending country or another has surfaced.

From the partial imports ban slapped on the Soviet Union in January to the threat of imposing sanctions against Israel - heard at a foreign ministers meeting here June 21 - trade sanctions have become the toughest means EC countries have to express displeasure and exert pressure without causing significant damage to their own wobbly economies.

''Frankly,'' an EC official conceded, ''the community has not made any great sacrifices so far. But the political signals sent have been heard loud and clear.''

The first country to hear the message was the Soviet Union. On Jan. 4, following the military crackdown in Poland, the EC punitively banned certain imports from Moscow. Critics of the move, however, point out that less than 2 percent of Soviet exports to the EC were affected by the ban.

EC officials nevertheless defended the decision, saying the important thing was that a ''signal'' had been sent.

One EC official emphasized that the organization cannot be expected to do anything that would seriously harm its position among trading nations.

This is clearly the case with Argentina. EC sanctions were imposed in response to Argentina's invasion of the Falkland Islands. But they were lifted June 21 after a cease-fire in Argentina's war with Britain went into effect. (Britain, however, will continue sanctions.)

While the imports ban certainly hurt Argentina, it also gave that country reason to retaliate against West European interests.

The main reason given for the call to lift sanctions after a cease-fire was that sanctions were jeopardizing Europe's commercial relations with Argentina.

''In recent weeks,'' according to a West German spokesman, ''several contracts that were to have been awarded to West German companies (by Argentina) were signed with Japanese companies instead.''

The real test of the EC willingness to pursue the path of economic reproach with vigor could come in the next few weeks.

At the foreign ministers meeting June 21, there was some loud talk about applying sanctions against Israel if it continues to occupy large parts of Lebanon.

This view was articulated more vociferously by British Foreign Secretary Francis Pym.

But EC president Leo Tindemans, reflecting the wider view, said that the possibility was not being actively considered.

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