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Portugal Hopes to Push EC Priorities to the South

But moves toward cooperation with North Africa are often thwarted

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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.

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