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European Community Sizes Up Its Growing Voice in Geopolitics

Western Europe's economic bloc sees role in allaying fears about German reunification

JUST as a reduced security threat is changing NATO's role from military to political, the European Community now sees its own responsibilities transforming, too. East-West integration and the internationalization of Eastern European economies ``have thrust management politics upon the EC,'' asserts James Elles, a British member of the European Parliament in Brussels. Mr. Elles was in Washington last week along with fellow parliamentarians to meet with congressional leaders and State Department officials.

This new responsibility for the EC may incite ``a rivalry in the division of labor between the changing North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Community,'' comments a senior official with the administrative European Commission in Brussels. The EC ``may interfere on security questions, and no doubt it will infringe on political questions. NATO-Warsaw Pact walls should stay intact for a long time, but it's clear that this is not forever,'' he says. ``The EC is the only stable institutional setting on the continent.''

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This official maintains that one ``cannot make a distinction between economics and politics; if there's one place this is true, it's Eastern Europe.'' The EC commenced its work reconstructing the East with food aid, debt deferrals, and infrastructure financing. Since then, it has helped to establish democratic political systems in the East and opening up broad trade opportunities for East European industries.

With German reunification, for example, which is a of both the Warsaw Pact and NATO, the EC will play a significant part. ``East Germany will be an absorption into the EC, not an enlargement,'' says Mr. Elles, referring to the Community's refusal to accept any new members soon, and its expansion of Germany's existing membership.

This future eastern region of Germany falls well below the average European Community standard of living, and it will immediately qualify for EC economic assistance. West Germany cannot be expected to foot the entire bill for unification, Elles says. ``Seven percent of East Germans have telephones,'' he says, emphasizing that country's economic disparities with the EC. ``Their water is 600 times worse than the EC standard.''

The US also must preserve a ``presence in this region,'' says E. N. Christodoulou, a Greek member of the European Parliament. ``Perhaps a German-US brigade can be found. The good balance of the US is essential,'' he says. ``Europeans are obsessed with Germany and all of Eastern Europe. Without the US, there is a real danger.... The force of German unification, economically and socially, may push the EC to the East. And anybody who thinks that the USSR is going to disappear from East European influence is an innocent.''

In Berlin last December, Secretary of State James Baker III underscored this point, saying the US-EC link ``should become stronger, the issues we discuss more diversified, and our common endeavors more important.'' He acknowledged that the EC will ``take on - perhaps in concert with other European institutions - increasingly important political roles.''

Already the EC promotes US financial and technical assistance for East European reforms, and US participation in the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. EC countries will comprise the majority of the bank's shareholders, but shares are open to ``other continents'' according to the European Commission cabinet officer. Capitalized at $10 billion to $15 billion, its financing will focus on regenerating East European industry and developing their economies.

Secretary Baker hopes for a more cooperative arrangement. ``As the substantive overlap between NATO and European institutions will grow,'' he says. ``This overlap must lead to synergy, not friction.''

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In some areas, the Bush administration may find the EC's emerging political role potentially prickly. Baker has pressed NATO to check East-West trade and investment in terms of ``Western security interests.'' But certain West European governments, Italy and Germany among them, have bullishly negotiated contracts that may defy the Committee on Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM). West European compliance with COCOM is regarded as essential if it is to work.

While EC officials may view their political role as outstripping their economic one, United States Trade Representative Carla Hills emphasized the importance of US-EC cooperation to EC political success. She casts that cooperation in trade and economic terms.

``I am quite enthusiastic about the opportunities that the single market affords us,'' Ms. Hills says. ``We are their largest [single country] purchaser ... so ... I don't think they want to bite the customer who has been so good over the years.''

Elles says Washington ``won't get a seat at the [EC] table,'' but clearly the US can play a strong cooperative role. ``I should like to ask those in the US who are seeking an equal footing in Europe if they would extend full reciprocity to the Community,'' Elles says.

``Would they, for example, grant us a seat around the table of [the White House] Council of Economic Advisers?''

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