ROME -- European Community leaders, alarmed by the prospect that social and political breakdown in the Soviet Union could send millions of refugees fleeing into Western Europe, are putting together an unprecedented package of emergency and long-term economic aid as a sign of Western support for Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
The 12 leaders, in Rome to launch an intergovernmental conference to turn the European Community from a trading bloc into a politically and economically united body, spent most of yesterday discussing aid to the Soviet Union.
While acknowledging that the Soviet Union was enjoying a record harvest this year, European Community officials said that problems in the distribution of food from the countryside to Moscow and Leningrad threatened to leave store shelves in the cities empty through the long winter.
Community leaders appeared motivated as much by the fear that people in the cities could go hungry this winter as by fear of the social and political consequences of such a failure of the Soviet system. They wanted to give what British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd called a "clear, unmistakable signal" of Western support for Mr. Gorbachev and his reform policies.
"It isn't in the interests of Europe or in the interests of Great Britain that the Soviet Union should lapse into anarchy or fall into the hands of some backward-looking tyrant," Mr. Hurd told reporters.
His comments followed a speech by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to EC leaders during which he warned that hard-liners attempting to undermine Mr. Gorbachev's authority and sabotage food distribution in the Soviet Union could threaten stability throughout the continent.
"It is wrong to simply say let's wait and see how things develop," said Hans Klein, Mr. Kohl's spokesman. "We have our own interest in seeing Gorbachev's reforms succeed."
The chancellor also was eager to see European leaders carry a more equitable share of the burden that Germany has undertaken in helping the Soviet Union.
Mr. Kohl pledged more than $8 billion in aid just to secure Moscow's agreement to German unity. Mr. Klein said Germany had pledged an equal amount in emergency food deliveries, economic aid and credit guarantees to Moscow.
"We've done three times as much as the rest of you," Mr. Klein said of Germany's European Community allies. "You could do more."
European leaders appeared unanimous in their support of sending emergency aid to the Soviet Union.
-! John Major, the British prime
minister making his debut among community leaders after the resignation of the combative Margaret Thatcher, suggested that the need for food deliveries to the Soviet Union might be overblown. But he did not doubt the wisdom of sending a political signal supporting Mr. Gorbachev in the form of food aid.
"We must help those who really need it, and at the same time reinforce the stability of the continent in one of its most sensitive areas," Enrique Baron Crespo, president of the European Parliament, said at a news conference. "It's not just a matter of charity or philanthropy."
Though community leaders ended yesterday's discussions without final agreement on the breakdown of emergency aid, they were considering a package of $300 million in immediate food shipments to the Soviet Union, taken from European Community farm surpluses, and $650 million in credit guarantees for food purchases.
As a sign of longer-term commitment to Moscow, the EC probably will propose a technical aid package of $1.3 billion during 1991 and 1992 to help create modern food distribution, transportation and telecommunication systems in the Soviet Union.
The aid package European leaders discussed yesterday far surpasses any previous emergency food assistance operations by the EC, underscoring both the growing role of the community and the dire nature of the fear that instability in the Soviet Union raises here.
Until now, the largest food aid package had been $40 million to Poland.
The EC discussed the aid package following a report by the European Commission, which concluded that the "situation is shifting and full of unpredictability," said Bruno de Thomas, commission spokesman.