Growing protectionist pressures in the United States may be threatening new international trade talks set for early next year. ``I don't see how we could possibly succeed in holding a new [trade] round in such a climate,'' Willy de Clercq, the European Community's external-relations commissioner, said in a recent interview. ``What would be the meaning of a new round in a climate of unilateral protectionist action?''
The EC will have no choice, Mr. de Clercq says, but to retaliate against protectionist actions taken by the US: ``Even the most reluctant politician . . . will not be able to resist [taking retaliatory action].''
Earlier this month, senior officials from the world's principal trading nations and the EC were meeting in Geneva to lay the groundwork for a new round of international trade negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
The Reagan administration has pushed for the talks to begin early next year. While the 10 EC countries in principle support the idea of holding the discussions, they now worry that protectionism in the US could endanger their success. More than 200 trade bills, many protectionist in nature, are awaiting congressional action.
Of particular concern to many Europeans, de Clercq says, is the possible combined effect on exports to the US of a weaker dollar and new moves to protect US industries from foreign competition by cutting imports from Western Europe and other parts of the world.
``It would be the worst combination imaginable,'' the commissioner said. ``And it looks like it's going to happen.'' A weaker dollar would make European products relatively more expensive for US importers to buy than they are today.
De Clercq's US counterpart, Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter, noted in a recent interview with the Monitor that ``we may shoot ourselves in the foot if we aren't careful'' by succumbing to public pressures to cut imports to protect domestic industries.
Most EC officials, including de Clercq, have praised the Reagan administration for resisting protectionism so far. De Clercq points out that while he is convinced the Reagan administration ``is prepared to fight against protectionist tendencies, and up to now the administration has done its best,'' the US elections scheduled for next year could tend to weaken the administration's resolve.
Some European officials have sensed problems ahead in negotiations aimed at renewing the 1982 steel products agreement between the US and the EC. The accord expires at the end of this year.
``I know it will be very difficult,'' de Clercq says, mentioning the ``tough time'' he and Mr. Yeutter had in reaching agreement last month on limiting EC exports to the US of 16 so-called ``consultation'' steel products. Nevertheless, de Clercq says he and Yeutter have ``an excellent working relationship.'' His aides call Yeutter's approach to trade problems ``solution oriented.''
De Clercq says protectionist measures taken in the US would worsen unemployment picture in Europe. Joblessness among the EC's 12.4 million workers rose to 11 percent in July, up from 10.8 percent in June.
``Unemployment is the main problem we have in Europe today,'' de Clercq says. ``I don't want to exaggerate, but I think it's safe to say that it is a destabilizing factor which could seriously threaten the very institutions of West European democracy.''
More broadly, he says, ``my personal fear is that such a hard attitude in the United States [regarding trade] will not be understood by public opinion in Western Europe and will foster anti-American feelings.''