HOW WELL THE EUROPEAN COMMUNITY'S new formula for state aid to the shipbuilding industry works out must await the test of actual experience. In some respects it represents a cutback from the levels of subsidy that could be obtained under the present EC law. The new formula, to take effect Jan. 1, sets the maximum limit of government aid at 28 percent of the cost of a new ship.

The rule it replaces made the subsidy for each order a matter of negotiation between the individual government and the EC, and tolerated a number of special incentives to attract shipyard business. The result was that the total subsidy sometimes went as high as 40 percent. The new 28 percent ceiling should be high enough, it is believed, to enable European yards to compete with the Far East, at least in building some special types of vessels.Be that as it may, there is something about the EC change of laws that must excite envy on this side of the Atlantic. That something is the sense of planning, of future potential, of willingness to think hard about shipbuilding as a national and European interest. In the United States, the Construction Differential Subsidy program was simply allowed to die - perhaps deservedly, in view of its effectiveness - with nothing to replace it beyond a suggestion to build or charter overseas.

Acquiring foreign tonnage or building abroad may be the only near-term alternative open to U.S. owners hard pressed to remain competitive today. But hard thinking about the future of U.S. shipbuilding, about how to regain the ability of the United States to build its own merchant ships, must not end

because of the awesome size of the problems. Shipbuilding is in trouble in most parts of the world. Certainly the United States cannot realistically hope to see its yards return to the flush times of the years after World War II.

Even so, this is not an industry to be lightly surrendered to competing powers in Asia or Europe. U.S. shipowners don't have to look far these days to see that the lure of low-interest financing for new ships built with low-cost labor overseas is no guarantee of success. Perhaps this is the time for some coordinated long-range planning of shipowners, shipbuilders, suppliers of steel and components and the federal government to determine what it would take for the United States once more to build her own ships.

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