European Neighbors Knock Louder on EC Doors. Non-EC Members Worry Single Market Will Isolate Them
Timothy Aeppel, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
EUROPE'S Economic Community has many of its closest neighbors sweating.
As the EC moves to erase internal borders after 1992, those outside the fringes of the 12-member grouping worry that they'll lose their ability to attract foreign investments and get cut off from what is soon to be the West's largest integrated market.
The economics are simple. Why should a Japanese firm build a computer plant in non-EC Austria, when it can plunk its money and machines into West Germany and gain access to half the continent in the process?
The Austrians aren't waiting to find out the answer to that one. They're expected to apply for EC membership this summer. Others could follow.
Indeed, the 1992 project has thrown the entire European Free Trade Association or EFTA - which unites Austria with five other non- EC European countries - into a near-crisis.
"We have to prove - and rather soon - that we're still a viable alternative to EC membership," says Hansj"org Renk, a spokesman for the Geneva-based association, whose members all have long-standing free-trade agreements with the EC.
EFTA was created in 1960 as a direct response to the forming of the EC, bringing together countries who for political reasons couldn't join the more extensive common market. EFTA focuses on creating free trade among its members and with the EC within the framework established by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. While the EC is a customs union, with unified external tariffs, EFTA members set tariffs independently against countries outside the association.
Mr. Renk says EFTA and the EC have drawn up a list of 30 areas, including culture and the environment, where they hope to forge closer links. "But EFTA won't transform itself into a mini-EC," he says. Indeed, the association has always had problems acting as a group. Members have little in common - other than an aversion to membership in the much larger EC.
Britain, Denmark, and Portugal are all founding EFTA members who later switched to the EC. Others joined the group in the meantime, keeping the total number of EFTA countries nearly steady. Three current members - Sweden, Norway, and Finland - often feel closer to one another as Scandinavians than they do to the Swiss, Austrians, and Icelanders.
The policy of East-West neutrality adhered to by most EFTA countries also poses a problem. Nations such as Switzerland and Sweden, although deeply meshed in global trade, still have trouble cooperating too closely with their neighbors, especially if this means going together with the pro-Western EC. Austria is neutral, but officials there insist there's no conflict with EC membership.
"If it's not possible to become a member [of the EC] without staying neutral - then we'll have to give up trying to join," says one Austrian official.
With Austria edging toward the EC, a push is on inside EFTA to make the group a more effective partner for the increasingly integrated Community. …