East demands its chance to compete: Trade in some goods is finally liberalised as Community states sign hard-fought deal

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The Independent Online
TODAY, for the first time, European leaders will stop paying lip service to the idea that the EC must open up to eastern Europe and deliver on their promise of trade liberalisation and a formal commitment to Community membership.

The accord with Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia that the 12 European Community heads of government will sign in Copenhagen has been hard fought.

The deal owes much to Sir Leon Brittan, the EC Commissioner for External Economic Affairs, who with the Foreign Affairs Commissioner, a fellow free-trader Hans van den Broek, has worked to overcome the protectionist instincts of the Community's poorer members such as Spain and Portugal in opening EC markets to 'sensitive' east European imports such as steel, textiles and agricultural produce.

The envisaged liberalisation measures, which include the lifting of customs duties on cars and industrial goods by the end of 1994, reducing levies on meat, vegetables and dairy produce and eventually scrapping duties on steel imports, go further than one might have expected from a recession-bound EC. But they have already been criticised for not going far enough.

In particular, it is unlikely that a majority of member states have the stomach for moving from a system of fixed quotas in 'sensitive products' to one of more flexible ceilings. Steel, textiles and agricultural produce already represent up to 40 per cent of EC exports, and the eastern countries argue that the Community needs to show still greater openness in these sectors if there is to be an immediate impact on trade flows to the benefit of both trading blocs.

This is not a request for EC charity but a demand that the Community put its money where its mouth is and give the east the chance to compete more fairly in the marketplace. The EC's own figures show that while Eastern Europe accounted for just over 3 per cent of total EC imports last year, imports from the Community accounted for more than half of all eastern European trade. In the three years since the fall of Communism, EC exports to the east have risen by 24 per cent.

The agreement is, however, more than a trade pact. It turns aspirations into reality in pledging not only economic but political integration.

It promises the six countries full EC membership 'when theyE are ready' and although governments such as that of Britain wiTHER write errorll fight for a definite date, a more likely compromise is the setting of broad membership criteria and a commitment in the meantime to establish closer political links at all levels of government. Economic assistance through existing EC management and training programmes will be beefed up.

The whole constitutes the EC's first global approach to eastern integration. Trade negotiations with Russia are proceeding less fast. But driven by the political need to back the Yeltsin reforms, the EC is likely to agree at the summit that it will go on working to secure a far more modest trade liberalisation package with fewer political guarantees.

The issue of Moscow's request to join the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) had threatened to provide the summit's political fireworks since it was feared President Boris Yeltsin might come to Copenhagen to lobby his own case, but now that Mr Yeltsin has agreed to stay in Moscow, it will be something of a damp squib.

Leading article, page 19