BRUSSELS, FEB. 4 -- The European allies said today they would make an overture to the United States about reaching a common approach toward a general settlement of Middle Eastern conflicts once fighting in the Persian Gulf War stops.
On other issues, the 12 European Community foreign ministers today said they would lift all remaining sanctions on South Africa as soon as legislative action is taken by the Pretoria government to repeal the twin foundations of apartheid: the Land Acts and Group Areas Act.
The Community applauded President Frederik W. de Klerk's speech on Friday announcing plans to repeal those acts and said today it will "prepare the necessary steps" to end four years of sanctions. The European states have already agreed to lift a ban on investment in South Africa, and the elimination of remaining punitive measures will allow resumption of trade in gold, iron and steel to be resumed.
The European ministers also welcomed Moscow's decision to hold a referendum in each of the Baltic states and "expressed the hope that this will favor the resumption of a meaningful and constructive dialogue" with the Soviet Union. But European food aid and other technical assistance to the Soviet Union will remain suspended until the European Parliament meets later this month to reconsider whether to proceed with deliveries on the basis of the Baltic political situation.
Following discussions here about the Middle East in the postwar phase, British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd said that a meeting would be scheduled with Secretary of State James A. Baker III soon to devise a joint U.S.-European strategy about how to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and future gulf security issues.
"The basic disputes in the Middle East are purely political in nature, not economic," Hurd said. "These must be resolved in full cooperation with the United States, not in competition or rivalry."
Luxembourg's Jacques Poos, whose country is now serving in the EC's rotating presidency, visited Washington last week and said the idea of coordinating European and American policies after the war was received with "great interest" by the Bush administration.
The European initiative appeared aimed at preventing the United States and Soviet Union from dominating such regional conflict-resolution efforts after the war is over.
Community officials said the effort to construct a European-American policy on postwar arrangements in the Middle East would represent the first test of the U.S.-EC charter approved in November. The document was conceived largely to emphasize that the character of the North Atlantic alliance has been changing into one of greater political cooperation now that the threat of a Soviet attack on Western Europe has vanished, thus making obsolete one of NATO's basic purposes.
But the Middle East is likely to prove a troublesome area for merging European and American strategies. To the anger and dismay of Israel, the Europeans have shown much greater enthusiasm than the United States for the notion of an international conference on the Middle East, with an eye toward granting the Palestinians some sort of self-determination.
Several ministers said there was a clear recognition that Europe's diplomatic position could be improved through better relations with Israel. They agreed to respond favorably to Israel's request for up to $200 million in economic assistance to offset the gulf war's impact, provided that the community balances this package with extra aid for Palestinians in the occupied territories.
The ministers today reaffirmed the common European views endorsing a Palestinian homeland and calling for an international conference on the Middle East to be held under United Nations auspices. But there were sharp differences over other Middle East priorities after the war, particularly over whether emphasis should be given to economic reconstruction or security needs.
Italy, backed by Spain and France, has called for a Mediterranean aid plan to bolster the economies of Turkey and North African nations and to alleviate growing social and political tensions in those countries.
But Hurd stressed that "the lack of security rather than poverty" is the major source of instability throughout the Middle East. He said trade and other economic assistance are fine, but the roots of conflict in the region are "political disputes that are full of venom." The gulf region, he added, is "uniquely prosperous, and we delude ourselves if we think that economic needs must be resolved before political ones."