Britain appears to be skillfully thwarting determined efforts by other West European nations to impose economic sanctions on South Africa. At a meeting of European Community foreign ministers here earlier this week, British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, backed by West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, vetoed what can only be described as modest proposals by the Dutch government to increase economic pressure on the Pretoria government. The proposal called for banning imports of South African fruit, vegetables, and wine. Together, these products represent no more than 6 percent of all South African trade with the 12 EC countries.
Recent press reports have suggested that the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has softened its opposition to economic sanctions as a tool to force the South African government into scrapping apartheid, its policy of forced racial segregation. After the EC meeting, however, Sir Geoffrey flatly denied those reports.
``Britain remains opposed to comprehensive economic boycotts because they do not work,'' he told journalists. ``Our purpose must be to bring down apartheid and not the South African economy.''
Britain is South Africa's largest trading partner. In London yesterday, Mrs. Thatcher reaffirmed her stand that economic sanctions would have negative effects, increasing unemployment in both South Africa and the United Kingdom.
Other British officials, meanwhile, said after the EC meeting here that the Thatcher government was not likely to change its position between now and the June 26 summit meeting of EC heads of government and state, when the issue will again be discussed.
The European foreign ministers who met here earlier this week ordered their aides to prepare a report on possible measures to be taken against the South African government in time for next week's summit. But most diplomats expect the EC leaders to shy away from approving any measures that could cripple the South African economy.
Last September, the EC approved a package of restrictions on Europe's relations with South Africa, including an arms embargo, an end to military and nuclear cooperation, and a halt to all cultural contacts. These measures fell far short of seriously damaging South Africa's economic viability. Most EC countries, in fact, had already taken such action on their own. Since then, as the situation in South Africa has deteriorated, pressure on the community to do more has increased.
Late last month, Denmark (an EC member) became the first Western nation to ban all trade with South Africa. It has been supported by at least three other EC countries -- Ireland, Spain, and Greece -- in its bid to convince the full community to act together and apply full economic sanctions against the Pretoria government. Several other EC countries, including France, Belgium, and Luxembourg, have said they reject comprehensive economic sanctions as ineffective and possibly counterproductive. But they have indicated a willingness to support the Dutch proposal to ban imports of South African fruit, vegetables, and wine.
Outside the EC, Sweden has added its voice to the European anti-apartheid clamor, introducing a licensing system for all trade with South Africa; banning all new investment; halting all South African agricultural imports; and prohibiting the transfer of all technology.
No one will speculate on what specific action EC leaders will take when they meet in The Hague next week -- least of all Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van den Broek, who chaired the meeting of EC foreign ministers here. He called such speculation ``extremely premature.''
What is certain, however, is that without the support of Britain and West Germany, any action by the European Community is likely to be weak at best.