The 10-nation European Community denounced the Soviet Union today for its "pressure" on Poland, raising the possibility of imposing economic sanctions on Moscow but making no commitments.
The statement by foreign ministers at a special meeting here marked a hardening in the joint European stand on Poland, including West German acceptance of stronger language. At the same time, it fell significantly short of the U.S. position and avoided any pledge to join Washington in commercial and financial measures against the Soviets.
The Europeans nevertheless said they would maintain "close and positive consultations" with the United States to avoid undermining U.S. sanctions already declared against the Soviet Union. This meant European firms would not be allowed to take on new contracts that the sanctions put out of bounds to American companies, said a diplomatic source. The European companies will be free to complete current contracts, he added.
"We don't want to interfere with U.S. actions on Poland and, equally, we don't want the United States to interfere with what we might do," said French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson.
A State Department spokesman welcomed the communique, saying its tone "strikes a common note with U.S. statements" on violation of human rights in Poland, on the Soviet role, the need for continued consultations and the grave consequences of an open Warsaw Pact intervention. Of the Europeans' stance on sanctions, he said, "We hope they will eventually take measures paralleling ours."
The foreign ministers' communique added: "Other measures will be considered as the situation in Poland develops, in particular measures concerning credit and economic assistance to Poland, and measures concerning the community's commercial policy with regard to the U.S.S.R. In addition, the Ten will examine the question of further food aid to Poland."
In assessing the developments within Poland, the European statement said:
"The inability of the system in Eastern Europe to accept the modifications necessary to meet the legitimate aspirations of the people is such as to endanger public confidence in the possibility of cooperative links with the East, and thus seriously to affect international relations. In this context, the Ten note with concern and disapproval the serious external pressure and the campaign directed by the U.S.S.R. and other Eastern European countries against the efforts for renewal in Poland."
This is interpreted as an oblique warning that Soviet actions in Poland could endanger detente. West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's concern about any overreaction to the Polish crisis reportedly had revolved around fears that the policy of detente with the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies could be compromised.
At the same time, the European ministers avoided characterizing how they defined the Soviet role in Poland up to now. Their caution reflected sensitivity to West German and Greek fears of turning the crisis into a confrontation with Moscow, European sources said.
In defining criteria for judging future developments in Poland, the Europeans called for an end of martial law, release of detainees and restoration of "general dialogue with the church and Solidarity." Observers noted the similarity between these demands and those put forward by the Reagan administration.
Cheysson qualified the European communique as "great progress" from the community's declaration Dec. 15, two days after the Polish imposition of martial law. He cited willingness to go beyond specific events in Poland to put them in the context of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe.
"This was very encouraging, a proof of maturity," Cheysson said at a briefing for French journalists. "But it came a little late, for the analysis of our partners had been a little superficial."
His remarks were seen as a reference to West Germany, which had avoided direct condemnation of the Soviet Union over the Polish crisis and expressed disapproval of economic sanctions as a way to punish Moscow or influence decisions in Warsaw. French officials in Paris have shown concern in recent days about West German policy, contrasting it with President Francois Mitterrand's denunciation of the Polish crackdown and Moscow's role in bringing it about.
The West German attitude is expected to be at the center of talks scheduled Tuesday in Washington between President Reagan and Schmidt. Similarly, the West German attitude is expected to be key at a NATO meeting tentatively set for next week.
Foreign Minister Leo Tindemans of Belgium, the current European Community president, said its commission will study possible commercial sanctions. Cheysson described the target as cutting of "preferential arrangements" with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Although several possibilities were discussed, the one judged most practical was imposition of restrictions on Soviet exports to Western Europe, an informed diplomatic source said. European Community imports amount to about $15 billion a year from the Soviet Union, more than 60 percent petroleum products. The United States imports only about $300 million worth of goods from the Soviets, the source said.
European imports of Soviet petroleum are unlikely to be restricted, he added. But Europe could--if the political decision were made--clamp restrictions on such Soviet exports as caviar, automobiles, diamonds and watches, he said.