Spaniards Savor New European Role. AT THE EC HELM

SPAIN is walking tall these days as it begins its first six-month chairmanship of the European Community (EC). And there is speculation that Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez M'arquez will use Spain's position to bolster his battered image at home.

Mr. Gonz'alez's image took a drubbing last month when the nation's workers staged the largest general strike since the 1930's. Opposition leaders have accused Gonz'alez in post-strike parliamentary debate of being arrogant and uncompromising in dealing with the country's economic problems.

But with prestige reinforced by the EC chairmanship, some Spanish commentators suggest Gonz'alez may call general elections in June, one year early, in a bid to win a new four-year mandate.

The EC chairmanship, which passes automatically from one member-nation to the next in line every six months, is a largely honorary post that has gone virtually unnoticed in other countries.

But ``Spain is different,'' to use a slogan coined by publicists for the late dictator Francisco Franco, whose death in 1975 led to a return to democracy. Like Britons, Spaniards have had the habit of referring to Europe as a geographical concept that does not include them. Now, after 10 years of constitutional democracy, they are intent on affirming their European identity. Three years ago Spaniards greeted EC membership with the slogan ``We are Europeans,'' a label seen as the functional equivalent of ``modern,'' ``progressive,'' and ``enlightened.'' They now show such zeal for European unity that they have been jokingly accused of trying to be more European than the Europeans.

The Socialist Party, in power for the past six years, seems especially eager to show that Spanish technocrats are able administrators who match up to those of more advanced European nations.

``We're not introducing anything new,'' says Foreign Minister Francisco Fern'andez Ord'onez. ``Rather, success can be measured by ... continuity, and in showing the extent to which we are efficient professionals.''

Among the challenges now confronting Spanish officials as they take the EC helm are: defusing a looming trade war with the United States, coordinating a common EC foreign policy, and furthering the process of economic integration.

The European Community is set to drop all financial and trade barriers by 1992, creating the ``single market'' that was the dream of the organization's founders 31 years ago.

``During the Spanish presidency there will possibly be more dialogue and new tension with the US,'' warns former Spanish Foreign Minister Fernando Mor'an, who heads the ruling Socialist Party's European Parliament delegation.

Forging common EC foreign policy positions will be another pressing concern as the 12-member nations seek consensus on relations with the Middle East, in the wake of US talks with the PLO, and with the Soviet Union following Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's disarmament pledge last month.

Spain's task as EC chair will be made more difficult by the fact that elections to the European Parliament in Brussels are scheduled for June. That means the legislature of the European Community must adjourn in May, giving Spanish officials only five months to achieve their goals.

But more daunting still may be the gradual public realization that the chairmanship entails plenty of protocol and photo opportunities as Spaniards preside over EC meetings, but offers little real power to resolve the complex problems facing an often cumbersome bureaucracy. EUROPEAN COMMUNITY Belgium Britain Denmark France Greece Ireland Italy Luxembourg Netherlands Portugal Spain West Germany

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