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You Scratch My Back and ... EUROPE AND CENTRAL AMERICA

A MEETING this week between the European Community and Central American states in Honduras highlights the unique role the EC plays in the region: While the EC has no substantial strategic or economic interests, its influence is assiduously cultivated by Central Americans as a counterweight to the United States. The arrangement is mutually beneficial, say European diplomats and regional officials. Central America is a region in which the EC sees itself as being able to exercise a foreign policy that impacts on superpower relations.

For Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, the EC is a Western forum from which they can solicit diplomatic and rhetorical support for initiatives that may draw less than enthusiastic response from the US. Such was the case for the August 1987 regional peace plan signed by the five Central American presidents.

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``We have always intervened in favor of pacific solutions in the region,'' says a European diplomat here. ``The EC is seen as neutral, and therefore can play `honest broker' here. This was the role the community deliberately took when things got hot here in the early 1980s.''

The EC was pulling itself together and looking for a place to exert influence at the same time that war, revolution, and counter-revolution were rocking Central America: The US was becoming increasingly committed to helping the Salvadoran government put down a leftist insurgency, and funding the contra rebel force to fight the Sandinista government; the Soviets were supporting the Sandinistas; and both Cuba and the Soviet Union had ties to the Salvadoran rebels.

``Central America was an almost ideal place for the [EC] to exert a balancing influence,'' on potential superpower conflict, says another European diplomat. ``We Europeans like to think of ourselves as the go-betweens in superpower conflicts.''

Unlike the Middle East, where the big EC powers have vital interests ``and must walk hand-in-hand with the Americans,'' the diplomat says, Central America is removed enough to ``allow some exerting of independence without risking much.''

ECONOMICALLY, the EC nations have little at stake here. Rather it is the Central Americans who look to the community for support. Western Europe was named as a source for reconstruction funds in both the 1987 peace treaty, and the follow-up accord singed by the five presidents Feb. 14 in El Salvador. Twenty-five percent of Central America's exports go to the EC.

At this week's two-day meeting, which ended Tuesday, a spokesman said the EC had pledged to extend $350 million in direct economic assistance to Central America this year. The community also plans to extend $450 million in development loans to the five governments over the next two years, he said.

Not all EC members, diplomats here say, share equal interest in Central America.

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``The [West] Germans are the point men on involvement in the region,'' says a diplomat, ``followed by Spain, Italy, and to lesser degrees France and Sweden [a non-EC member].''

The following are among the examples of European involvement over the years:

In 1981, Mexico and the new Socialist government of France issued a joint declaration recognizing the Salvadoran rebel coalition, the FMLN, as a representative political force. It was seen as a diplomatic triumph for the rebels at a time when US military involvement was peaking.

In 1985, when Salvadoran President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte's daughter was kidnapped by rebels, a West German Social Democrat negotiated her release.

Since peace talks began with the Nicaraguan contras in December 1987, a visible and influential presence on the Sandinista side has been Hans Juergen Wischnewski, an ambassador-at-large for the West German Social Democratic Party.

When the five presidents signed an agreement on verifying the non-use of their territory by various guerrilla organizations, West Germany, Spain, and Canada were called upon to send military observers to the verification commission.

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