East Europeans Fear Protectionism Eastern Europe Has Focused Most of Its Trade Efforts on the West, but New Restrictions Have Raised Concerns

Article excerpt

WITH the collapse of the Comecon trading systems two years ago, the countries of Eastern Europe cut ties with one another and reoriented their trade to West European markets. Now leaders in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech and Slovak Republics are wondering if that was a good idea.

Helped by the lifting of many European Community and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) trade barriers, the four Central European countries conduct 60 to 75 percent of their trade with Western Europe. Eastern leaders had hoped that the signing of free trade agreements with the EC and EFTA earlier this year would further integrate their economies with the West.

But a spate of measures restricting imports from the East has raised concerns across the region that Western Europe has no intention of letting the East compete on an equal footing.

"Europe uses a sort of double-speak," says Laszlo Csaba of Hungary's Kopint-Datorg economic research institute.

"It's all very good when they're talking in very general terms," he adds. " But when it comes down to substantive things it gets very petty-minded, especially in areas where we have a competitive advantage." West European measures

In April, the EC imposed a ban on livestock, meat, and dairy products from 18 eastern countries following an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease in Croatia. Hungarian Foreign Minister Geza Jeszenszky told EC leaders that the "entirely unwarranted {move} smacks of a most regrettable survival of the notion of an Eastern bloc."

The EC followed with anti-dumping duties and "voluntary" export restraints on certain steel products from Hungary and Poland. And just days after signing the EFTA free-trade agreement in early April, Austria introduced import quotas on chemicals, cement, agricultural machinery, and steel from Eastern Europe. West Europeans claim that their eastern neighbors have an unfair advantage because of low wages, state subsidies, and low environmental standards.

Although the EC and EFTA agreements are supposed to lift tariffs and trade barriers on most industrial goods over 10 years, most agricultural products are not included in the agreements. This is critical for Hungary, with its extensive farm sector.

"The EC is never going to let Hungary achieve its potential output," says Iowa farmer David Andres, who has studied Hungarian agriculture firsthand. "They're already afraid of Hungary."

"The stronger player always calls the shots in the gray areas and we're certainly weaker than they are," says Ladislav Derian, first secretary of Slovakia's embassy in Budapest. …

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