East, West European nations edge closer on economic ties

Along with arms-control talks, superpower summits, and arguments about human rights, another set of East-West contacts is going on in Europe aimed at breaking down the old cold-war barriers. And these contacts are bearing fruit.

Late last week, the European Community (EC) and its East European counterpart, Comecon, took steps toward establishing diplomatic relations. Two Comecon countries - the Soviet Union and East Germany - subsequently indicated they wanted individual diplomatic ties with the EC. Willy de Clercq, EC external relations commissioner, told a news conference the two nations had made the request verbally.

The EC is also close to making its first agreements to encourage trade with Hungary and Czechoslovakia. And it is studying another recent approach from the Soviet Union with great interest - but also with a degree of puzzlement, because the Soviets seem to be seeking cooperation on nearly all issues except trade. (Comecon countries have snubbed the EC since its founding in 1957, regarding it as an extension of the NATO military alliance.)

Mr. de Clercq recently reported to the European Parliament on the range of contacts that have opened up since Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. He said West Europeans have no intention of treating Comecon countries as a monolithic bloc, and every intention of dealing out terms to each eastern neighbor according to whether its economic system is becoming more market-oriented, and also according to human rights standards.

The Commissioner spoke warmly of Hungary, which has the most Westernized economy in the East bloc and is now negotiating for a comprehensive trade and cooperation agreement. ``We are ready,'' he said, ``to go very far in liberalizing our import regulations to help Hungarian products come in to the European Community.''

But no such warmth was expressed for Romania. De Clercq had already told the Romanians he saw no possibility of the big improvement in market access they were demanding. He referred to suffering inflicted on the Romanian people by the economic policies of the authorities there, and also by their refusal to allow aid from outside to correct these sufferings.

Other reasons were more political: ``numerous problems of human rights,'' and ``the treatment reserved for minorities'' - including ethnic Hungarians.

Dealing with the Soviet Union, de Clercq adopted a different, careful style of language.

His report also threw an unusual light on the Gorbachev reform program. It described how the chief Soviet negotiatior, Vice-Minister Ivan Ivanov, has been pushing the idea here of cooperation with the EC in almost every possible field, ranging from inventions and coproduction, to fishing, environmental issues, and nuclear safety - every possible field, that is, except trade.

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