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European Community leaders opened a two-day summit Monday by debating a plan proposed by France and West Germany to grant urgent economic aid to the Soviet Union in hopes of bolstering President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Britain opposes the proposal. "There's no evidence of Mr. Gorbachev going down," said a top aide to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as the summit of EC leaders opened at medieval Dublin Castle.Britain and the United States insist Western economic aid to the Soviets would be wasted unless free-market reforms were first implemented.

"We must ask ourselves whether it makes sense to throw huge sums of money at the Soviet Union," the British spokesman said.

The showdown over Soviet aid dominated the start of the 12-nation, two-day summit, overshadowing a proposal to relax sanctions against South Africa and the EC's plans to forge closer "political union," including a common foreign policy.

France and West Germany say the Soviet economy is in critical condition and needs emergency aid from the West.

"I do not think we have a lot of time," West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said in proposing an EC aid package along with French President Francois Mitterrand.

Britain opposes a separate EC program and instead seeks a discussion of Soviet aid at next month's Houston summit of the seven leading industrial democracies. The July 9-11 summit of the so-called G-7 includes the United States, Japan, Canada and four EC countries - Britain, France, West Germany and Italy.

Britain, which is frequently isolated at EC summits, conceded defeat of its proposal to lift an investment ban and other EC sanctions imposed in 1986 on South Africa. Unanimity was required to reverse the sanctions but Ireland and Denmark first seek proof of "profound and irreversible change" in apartheid.

Still, Thatcher sought a "clear signal of support" for liberalizing steps taken by South African President Frederik de Klerk, and such a gesture was likely in the summit's final communique on Tuesday.

EC leaders set a Dec. 14 starting date in Rome for a special inter-governmental conference in Rome leading to closer political ties in the 12-nation Economic Community.

Goals include "a common foreign policy, including joint consideration of the issues of peace, security and arms control," said Enrique Baron, president of the European Parliament.

The conference will run parallel to a similar forum on economic and monetary union, which is expected to lead to a common European currency.

East German Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere joined the EC leaders at lunch on Monday. His country will be absorbed into the community once German unification is completed.

The summit concludes Ireland's six-month EC presidency but Irish eyes were focused instead on the second-round World Cup soccer match between Ireland and Romania in Genoa, Italy.