As Britain handed over the presidency of the European Community to Belgium on New Year's Day, U.K. government ministers were able to quietly congratulate themselves. After an inauspicious start that saw the EC in a dreadful tangle over South African sanctions, Britain was able to claim the credit for some very real progress on several major issues towards the end of its term of office.

At the peak of the Christmas party season, office corridors in Brussels were buzzing with activity. But social festivities were far from most people's minds.Instead, ministers from the twelve member states were working flat out - and occasionally throughout the night - to reach agreement on all sorts of matters that were threatening to undermine the EC.

In the end, it was the least expected breakthrough that saved the day. Britain's Minister of Agriculture Michael Jopling refused to go home until EC farm ministers agreed to some measures that would help reduce the EC's massive food mountains. After seven days of talks including one 28-hour session, he finally succeeded in negotiating a deal that should cut the beef and milk powder stockpiles.

Many problems remain untouched. At the London summit of EC government leaders at the beginning of December, the crucial subject of the EC's budget was not even on the agenda. The spiraling costs of the Common Agricultural Policy have pushed the EC to the edge of bankruptcy, even after the farm ministers' accord. But it will be up to the luckless Belgians to tackle the momentous task of trying to bring the EC's financial crisis under control during the coming six months.

Mrs. Thatcher was determined to end Britain's half-year presidency on a conciliatory and harmonious note, unspoiled by internal bickering about finances, despite a warning from Jacques Delors, president of the European

Commission, that the EC could go bust this year.

But while the British prime minister presided over an uncontroversial and low -key summit, her ministers were badgering away at a whole series of end- of-term meetings on a matter very close to her heart - the development of a single unified marketplace free of any internal barriers between the twelve countries.

The EC has set itself a target date of 1992 by which to achieve a genuine common market, but this timetable was slipping when Britain took over the revolving presidency in July.

Now, though, things are back on track after the sudden burst of activity late in the year. The EC's trade ministers set the tone when they suddenly agreed on twelve measures that will contribute towards a more unified market. Apparently esoteric matters such as a EC standard for tractor roll-over bars, standardized rules for consumer credit and a clampdown on unnecessary duplication of laboratory testing are all important steps towards achieving freedom of trade.

Some progress was also made by EC finance ministers on capital movements while the European Court in Luxembourg ruled that a series of barriers against the marketing of non-life insurance in the EC were illegal.

There were setbacks, though. Although transport ministers agreed to a timetable for the dis mantling of restrictive shipping practices and the outlawing of unfair pricing, they failed to make further progress on the liberalization of air services. Britain has been a keen advocate of a freer aviation market, but member states so far have not been able to agree on the abolition of restrictions on cheap fares.

Nevertheless, Britain has succeeded in giving fresh impetus to the vitally important quest for a fully integrated Common Market.

The EC faces all sorts of headaches in the coming months, not least a trade war with the United States as well as a cash crisis. There are still hundreds of issues to be resolved before all internal trade barriers between the twelve member countries disappear, while the farm ministers' pact on beef and dairy produce only scratches at the surface of the food mountain problem.

The British have never been regarded as good EC members. Initially reluctant to join and deeply divided about the benefits of membership, successive U.K. governments have repeatedly fallen out with their continental colleagues. Neither Labour nor Conservative administrations have allowed sterling to join the European Monetary System, which links all the other major EC currencies, while Mrs. Thatcher nagged and nagged until Britain's contributions to the EC budget were reduced.

But the United Kingdom fully recognizes the necessity of establishing a single homogenous market of 320 million people, free of border controls and other barriers that hamper trade, push up prices and cost jobs.

As a major trading nation, Britain should benefit enormously from the creation of a unified market, especially in the service sector.

There will be many more protracted and probably heated rounds of negotiations before this can be achieved, with each country anxious to protect its industries even while paying lip service to the abolition of protectionism.

Nevertheless, British ministers, and Mr. Jopling in particular, proved that progress on apparently insurmountable differences can be achieved, given sufficient determination and resolution.

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