WILL EUROPE'S ECONOMIC INTEGRATION mean open markets or just more protection?

American diplomats worry openly that the lowering of trade barriers within the European Community by 1992 will be accompanied by the erection of higher

barriers around it. Comments last week by EC Commissioner Willy de Clercq indicate that those fears are by no means misplaced.Mr. de Clercq, who is in charge of foreign trade for the EC Commission, said the 12-member community may establish overall limits on the number of Japanese cars that can be imported into Europe. Community-wide quotas would supplant the auto import limits already in place in Britain, Italy and Spain - but would also force up auto prices in West Germany and the Benelux countries, which have not restricted shipments of Japanese cars.

The greatest benefit of eliminating Europe's internal barriers is more efficient production and distribution. With manufacturers able to operate on a continental scale rather than treating each national market separately, they should be better able to compete with world-class manufacturers abroad. But Mr. de Clercq's words indicate that Europe's protectionist instincts may well win out over its stated desire for more intense competition.

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