The world's two largest economic blocs have resumed their on-again, off-again flirtation across the East-West ideological divide. This hesitant courtship between the communist world's Comecon and the European Common Market first began in 1978 but was effectively dropped following the Soviet Union's military intervention in Afghanistan. But interest by Comecon (officially the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) has been revived with vigor since Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader.
While Comecon's desire to improve links with its Western neighbors has always been received with coolness, it is regarded with even more suspicion now. The overture is suspected to be part of the general Soviet effort to draw Eastern and Western Europe closer together at the expense of the Western allies' ties with the United States.
Some analysts see Comecon's new advances as a campaign to overcome US restrictions on high-technology transfers to the East bloc by contracting with Western Europe's stagnating industries instead. The Soviet bloc is also believed to be taking advantage of tension in US-European trade and diplomatic relations in an effort to drive a wedge deeper between the two pillars of the Western alliance.
In the latest round of this lengthy process, the European Community reacted last week with traditional coolness to Comecon's proposals.
The EC commissioner in charge of external relations and trade negotiations, Willy de Clercq, released the contents of a letter he had addressed to Vyacheslav Sytchev, the secretary-general of Comecon.
Replying to a June communication by Mr. Sytchev, Mr. de Clercq, a former Belgian finance minister, largely outlined the EC's position on the deadlocked dialogue between the two organizations.
Previous efforts to develop general working relations between the two central bodies have broken down over the EC's preference to deal with individual Comecon countries rather than the organization as a whole.
The EC has regarded deals with Comecon itself as boosting the prestige of an organization that is regarded as part of the Soviet system of control over its satellites. And for its part, Comecon had for years largely rejected the EC as a mere economic appendage of the Western alliance, a position it modified in the late 1970s when economic relations with the EC became more attractive.
Mr. Gorbachev moved the Comecon position considerably further when he recently told Italian leaders visiting Moscow that he recognized the EC as a full-fledged political entity.
During a June visit by Italian Premier Bettino Craxi, Gorbachev remarked, ``It is time to organize mutually advantageous economic relations'' between Comecon and the EC.
A Novosti Press Agency commentary a few days later noted that during the heyday of d'etente in the 1970s, EC exports to the Comecon countries quadrupled, while those to the US only tripled.
It added that the East bloc offered ``a vast and stable outlet for the countries of the Common Market.'' And it recalled ``disagreeable'' US-inspired sanctions and restrictions on trade with the Communist bloc.
But if Western European governments sometimes chafe at such US policies and eagerly compete for East-bloc sales, there seems to be little inclination to rush into a major change in European doctrine and relations toward Comecon.
The de Clercq message to Comecon last week said the EC was ``available'' to renew the East-West dialogue. But it also recalled the EC position that Comecon has no mandate to negotiate on behalf of its member states. (The EC is authorized to do so by its membership treaty.)
Sources here have underlined that such a tough legalistic EC stance is at least partly motivated by the joint desire by Western states not to enlarge the Soviet and Comecon dominance over the economies of its smaller members, such as Poland, Hungary, and East Germany. This is one frequently cited explanation for why both the EC and the Eastern European states would prefer to continue dealing on a bilateral basis.