Portugal Hopes to Push EC Priorities to the South

But moves toward cooperation with North Africa are often thwarted

PORTUGAL'S choice of the astrolabe, an ocean-navigating instrument, to symbolize its first turn at the European Community's six-month presidency reflects its determination to move Africa, Latin America, and other points across the seas higher up on a "Eurocentric" Europe's agenda.

Less than two months into a presidency that runs through the end of June, however, the Portuguese are learning that, when balancing 12 sovereign countries' priorities and dealing with a former superpower's collapse and reconfiguration, you can't always get what you want.

It is a perennial problem for EC members as they take over the Community's rotating presidency: Priorities are announced, usually with great fanfare, only to be lost in the shuffle of the EC's internal business or the rush to address unexpected crises. Europe has experienced an inordinate number of the latter since the fall of Communism brought Eastern European countries knocking on Western Europe's door in 1989.

"If the Soviet Union breaks up and the republics require political and economic attention, then the other ideas start losing their interest," says Fernando Balsinha, aide to Foreign Minister Joao Deus Pinheiro. "At that point it's impossible for the presidency to pursue things as planned." Portuguese agenda

The Portuguese were hoping to organize a Mediterranean summit bringing together the five southern-most members of the EC with the five members of the Arab Maghreb Union.

"The southern members [of the EC] are always calling for more cooperation with North Africa, and we were determined to make good on that," says Mr. Balsinha. "But just days before we started our presidency, things happened." Two EC members, France and Britain, joined the United States in pressing United Nations action against Libya over its suspected role in bombings of commercial airliners, including the Pan American jet that crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.

Then, in January, Algeria's first free national elections were canceled and a military-guided Council of State was put in power.

"We can't tell the Libyans: 'We're having this meeting but you aren't coming,' but we also can't have it with them at the moment, so that puts the whole thing off," Balsinha says. "We also have to wait and see just where the Algerian leaders are taking things."

The Portuguese, who held on to colonies in southern Africa, including Angola and Mozambique, until 1975, are also hinting they would like to hold a high-level "conference on development," bringing together the EC and the European Free Trade Association with South Africa and its front-line neighbors.

Saying chances for such a conference brightened after the EC formally lifted its embargo against iron, steel, and gold from South Africa in January, Portuguese officials acknowledge any meeting still hinges on "how things are going in South Africa."

Yet other events and issues are likely, once again, to push such new initiatives to the background.

The EC, keen to boost its profile in a region it considers central to Europe's security and economic interests, is slated to host at least one of the seminars emanating from the multilateral portion of the Middle East peace talks.

In addition, a second conference for organizing Western aid to the republics of the former Soviet Union is in the works. After the Washington conference in January, which focused on emergency aid, the EC is looking to discuss medium- and long-term economic assistance in Lisbon conference at the end of May. Pessimistic on GATT

In addition, the Portuguese claim the 5 1/2-year-old Uruguay Round of international trade talks is at the top of their agenda. Privately, however, they say they are "rather pessimistic" about any breakthroughs before 1993 - in part because of US presidential and congressional elections, but also because of elections slated across the EC.

France holds regional elections in March; Italy will have parliamentary elections in April; and Britain will hold national elections sometime this spring - perhaps as early as April 9.

That string of elections is also contributing to fireworks over the EC's next five-year budget, another issue the Portuguese hope to wrap up during their presidency. Some analysts believe a special EC summit will be needed to settle the budget, but the various European elections don't facilitate talk of larger national contributions to the EC. Showing competence

The British have already come out against the EC Executive Commission's proposal to raise EC spending by one-third, from $86 billion this year to $113 billion in 1997. Portuguese Prime Minister Anibal Cavaco Silva has promised the British not to call a special "budget summit" before British elections.

Simple pride always pushes EC members to leave a mark during their presidency, but the Portuguese appear all the more determined to handle this opportunity competently. They are well aware of proposals floating around the EC that would make Portugal's first presidency its last.

With a growing chorus of voices saying the EC is becoming too important in world affairs to be guided by a six-month presidency rotating among a spectrum of weighty and not-so-weighty international players, proposals are growing to lengthen the presidency and limit it to the EC's five larger members: Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain.

No reform will take place before the EC's next treaty revision, set for 1996. But the Portuguese, who will not have another turn at the presidency until at least 1998, are already playing the small states' advocate.

"The spirit and whole basis of this Community is solidarity," says Balsinha, "and if the small states are denied a leadership role in such an important way, that vital element would be lost."

Another proposal for keeping everybody involved is to go to regional presidencies: the Iberian Peninsula, the Benelux countries, a Scandinavian presidency (after Sweden, Norway, and Finland join, as anticipated, later in the decade). Such an alternative would be a telltale test of nationalsm's hold across Europe.

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