Europe sanctions: signal to Pretoria -- and Reagan?

In approving a package of economic sanctions yesterday, the European Community has taken a modest step toward increasing pressure for reform in South Africa. But by leaving out of the package the item that would have the strongest immediate impact, coal, the action underlined the divisions in the West about using sanctions at all.

Nonetheless, the EC move is expected here to influence efforts under way in the United States to introduce similar measures aimed at forcing the South African government to abandon its policy of apartheid.

The EC decision is expected to put President Reagan in a delicate position. Last week, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a sanctions bill endorsed earlier by the Senate. The White House said immediately that the President intended to veto the measure. But some analysts wonder whether he will want to risk a split with Europe over the issue, especially when Congress appears likely to muster enough votes to override a presidential veto.

The EC action also sent a message to New York where the UN General Assembly, which reconvened Tuesday, is expected to focus on the question of sanctions against South Africa.

At a two-day meeting here, which tottered over the question of what the sanctions package should include, foreign ministers from the 12 EC countries agreed to ban new investments in South Africa and to halt all imports of iron, steel, and gold coins. But the ministers rejected earlier proposals to prohibit imports of coal -- by far the biggest item considered. Coal exports to Europe earned the South African economy about $1.27 billion last year.

The EC's new sanctions package, however, is still expected to cost South Africa at least $566 million a year in lost export revenue. Gold coin sales by South Africa to the EC last year were valued at $142 million, while South African iron and steel exports to the EC were worth about $424 million. Meanwhile, new investments by EC companies in South Africa have averaged well over $500 million a year since 1980.

Britain's foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, who chaired the meeting here, called the decision ``a clear signal'' to the Pretoria government and pledged that the EC would continue its efforts to work toward a ``democratic and nonracial South Africa peacefully.''

The decision to apply new economic pressure on South Africa came after months of wrangling among the EC countries. In the end, the ministers were not able to include a ban on coal imports because West Germany and several other countries believed -- in the words of West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher -- that it would have ``a devastating effect'' on black workers in the mines of South Africa. About half of South Africa's coal exports go to EC countries.

The proposed US legislation includes a ban on coal imports and is far more punitive than the EC package.

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