The European Economic Community, once a staunch crusader for free trade and competition, has quietly shifted in recent months to the camp of protectionism and cozy cartels to combat unemplyment.
With six million workers out of jobs in the EEC, Common market leaders no longer voice support for the erst while ideal of free trade. Instead, they advocate an urgent need for "organized" world trade - meaning import curbs dressed up as a voluntary quotas.
EEC officials justify the subtle policy switch as necessary to stave off a flood of cheap foreign imports and to keep pace with new trade barriers in the United States and Japan.
"We're seeing a vicious circle at work," remarked an EEC Executive Commission official. "And I fear it's going to get worse, not better."
To stem the tide of imports and protect local jobs, the Common Market has imposed various kinds of restrictions on steel, shoes, textiles, electronic gear and food coming into the community. Further action is planned in other sectors if the European job situation worsens.
The accelerating retreat from free trade by the world's leading commercial powers could gravely undermine hopes to spur world trade as a means of generating a healthy climate for global economic recovery.
The Common Market accounts for about one-third of all world commerce. It though new trade policy affects developing countries as well as the leading industrialized nations.
EEC officials point to other trading powers in the Western world and claim that the community is doing no more than matching the efforts of Japan and the United States to preserve jobs threatened by foreign producers.
Led by Britain and France, EEC countries have grown alarmed over the sharp rise in unemployment and clamored for a quick remedy by closing the door to foreign imports. Even West Germany, an ardent backer of free market capitalism, now favors some trade controls.
Two months ago, the Common Market claimed that 500,000 jobs had been lost in the European textile industry since 1974 and asked for an immediate freeze on imports of most clothing items from developing nations. The request provoked the collapse of the 50-member multifiber agreement and signaled the new era of restrictive EEC trade policy.
The rigid EEC line on trade derives, in large part, from soaring labor costs and a dwindling competitive advantage on world markets. The declining value of the dollar has exacerbated Europe's commercial troubles.
However, European experts harbor mixed feelings about the dollar's low rate, since it means that EEC countries can minimize their steep oil import bills.
Increasingly, EEC officials are looking at the dollar as the root of commercial evil. The Common Market has often castigated Japan for running up huge trade surpluses. But it has remained discreetly subdued while the United States builds up even larger surpluses thant he Japanese in overall exchanges with EEC countries.
COmmon Market specialists are adamant about refusing to give in to American demands for a more open trading arrangements in agricultural goods. They argue that the United States earned a surplus exceeding $2 billion in farm trade alone with EEC countries last year.
A major part of the EEC plan for industrial recovery involves further compromising of free trade. EEC industry Commissioner Etienne Davignon wants to "restructure" European steel and shipbuilding firms into tight cartels than can bear the brunt of world competition.
That plan could be endangered if the United States proceeds to act on an anti-dumping complaint by U.S. Steel Corp. against European producers. The recent shutdown of American steel plants evoked fears in Europe of imminent on European steel exported to the United States.
Europe's initial reaction to such a move, say EEC experts, would be to seek new restrictions on American products exported to the Common Market. The hard-pressed EEC steel companies, the same officials claim, would be the first to exhort national leaders to move against the United States out of commercial revenge.