EXPLORATORY discussion this week between Comecon -- the Soviet-led Council for Mutual Economic Assistance -- and the European Community is another important indication that a new cycle in relationships between East and West is under way. Any linkup between the two trading systems, however tenuous, would add up to a direct challenge to the stark division between communist and non-communist governments that has characterized Europe since the end of World War II. Comecon is the overall economic and trade group that includes the seven socialist-bloc governments of Eastern Europe, as well as Cuba, Mongolia, and Vietnam. The European Community comprises 12 nations of Western Europe, including Britain, France, West Germany, and Italy. The two groups broke off talks back in 1980, following a refusal by Moscow to recognize the legitimacy of the EC.
Now the two sides are once again talking. A trade linkage, if carefully designed to protect Western European democracies from having to sign any agreement conceding the division of Europe, would be useful in expanding continent-wide trade. Trade between the EC and Comecon nations was about $44 billion last year, down slightly from 1984. Meantime, it is estimated that three-quarters of all Soviet exports to the West go to EC nations.
The new EC-Comecon discussion is not an isolated case of reaching out by the East bloc. When the Comecon does seek closer ties with the West, it is doing so with Moscow's encouragement -- if not bidding. Also, Moscow earlier this month sought to participate in a new round of global trade talks at Punta del Este, Uruguay, under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Moscow's bid was turned down. And the Soviets have been sending out hints about becoming affiliated with the International Monetary Fund.
Now that their oil revenues are down, the Soviets need more hard currency. They must step up exports. Further, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is far more flexible than his predecessors. Joining Western trade groups would provide more room for political maneuvering.
Western nations must be on guard against Soviet efforts to drive wedges between allies, or to gain access to sensitive Western technology. Still, the world can only benefit from closer ties in the economic and trade arenas.