Western European leaders considered tonight offering surplus agricultural goods to Poland at cut rates, but took no formal decision on the matter at the start of a two-day summit meeting here.
Although under pressure today to act as a result of a leaked press report that the European Community as a whole would do something concrete for Poland, heads of state and government from the nine community countries sidestepped the politically delicate question of economic assistance and instead reportedly plan to issue a political statement on the Polish situation Tuesday.
Any such assistance -- not specifically requested by the Warsaw government although certain to be welcomed by it -- is an extremely sensitive issue in East-West relations in view of recent hard-line Soviet Bloc attacks against the West for aid to Poland. o
Despite the interest in the Polish crisis, the formal focus for the high-level talks -- which are expected to be dominated by foreign policy discussions -- is the Middle East. European Community leaders reportedly are planning to authorize another joint diplomatic mission through that region to keep alive recent efforts to involve Western Europe in the Middle East peace process.
In recent weeks, Poland has made several bilateral requests to Western governments for additional financing following the labor turmoil that has complicated repayment of the $2 billion Warsaw already has borrowed from the West.
Among those new requests has been one for $3 billion from Washington -- an appeal that the Carter administration has decided to leave on the table for the new Republican government of Ronald Reagan to take up.
Although there was no official request from Warsaw for food assistance, sources here said Polish envoys in Brussels had asked European diplomats informally about the size and nature of Common Market surpluses. These contacts apparently gave impetus to today's summit talks on the matter, although Poland has no formal diplomatic relations with the Common Market.
There is no shortage of butter, cereal and beef that the West Europeans could send to Poland. Approximately 300,000 tons of butter and 275,000 tons of meat have been amassed by European Community governments as a result of the community's extensive agricultural support system.
Community leaders were said to be ready to decide in principle to sell food to Poland at below-market prices, seeing this as a relatively inexpensive, constructive way to demonstrate concern for the politically and economically fragile situation there.
The exact quantities and nature of goods to be sold have not been made clear (one West German report said 20,000 tons of butter and 40,000 tons of beef worth $97 million) and a number of technicalities of the transfer still have to be worked out by the European Commission staff -- above all, how the sales would be financed. One proposal is to have each member country negotiate a bilateral credit arrangement with Warsaw to cover part of the cost of the purchases.
To keep the action as low-key as possible, and hopefully avoid Soviet criticism, the Europeans may omit reference to it in Tuesday's fromal communique at the end of the summit.