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Amid mounting concern across Europe that the Clinton administration is leading the charge into a transatlantic trade war, European Community trade ministers Feb. 2 "sharply criticized" punitive United States trade measures taken against the EC over the past week.

Yet while condemning the US action, EC officials also refrained from considering retaliatory measures, at least until a series of US-EC trade meetings this month offer a clearer picture of the new US administration's trade policy.

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Recent US moves "might be the action of a new administration wanting to flex its muscles," said Sir Leon Brittan, EC commissioner for external economic affairs, after meeting with EC trade ministers Feb. 2. "This is not yet fully formulated policy."

On Feb. 1 Mr. Brittan condemned as "unilateral bullying" a US decision earlier in the day to restrict EC access to federal contracts for goods and services. His aides expressed dismay that the US action followed on the heels of a USCommerce Department decision to levy anti-dumping duties against 19 steel-exporting countries, including the EC's major steel producers.

US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor announced the administration's procurement measures, set to take effect March 22, as retaliation for EC public procurement regulations that the US first attacked almost a year ago as unfairly favoring domestic bidders.

Despite disappointment at the US action, however, EC officials remained reluctant to launch a counter-offensive against the Clinton administration for fear of further dampening the already gloomy prospects for the Uruguay Round international trade liberalization negotiations.

"The US measures are the absolutely wrong signal to be sending the world economy," said Danish Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Peterson, whose country holds the EC's rotating six-month presidency.

The EC also wants to avoid souring the first meeting between the new US and EC trade representatives Feb. 11 in Washington.

Despite some feigned surprise in EC circles over the US action on procurement, the fact that Mr. Brittan's office issued a detailed, four-page response to the planned restrictions within an hour of the US announcement indicates the move was anticipated.

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