Recession saps Europe's antinuclear movement

The European antinuclear movement is thriving in its birthplace, Holland, but appears to be slipping elsewhere in NATO Europe.

The situation is volatile, however, and circumstances - especially any perception next year that the Reagan administration is not negotiating arms control in good faith - could probably revive the movement quickly and spectacularly.

There have not been any giant demonstrations to test the movement's strength since last June's 400,000 gathered in Bonn across the Rhine from Ronald Reagan to protest the American President's nuclear policies. Nor will there be any mass marches in the near future.

The peace movement's tactics now are more decentralized. Large public protests will resume - at NATO missile sites - only next year, as the end-of- 1983 deadline for NATO's initial Pershing and cruise missile deployments approaches.

Nonetheless, there are a few benchmarks that do show the antinuclear movement's current standing.

In Holland the new government has postponed yet again the final Dutch decision on the stationing of the new American NATO missiles. In Britain, on the other hand, nuclear pacifists are still ''licking their wounds'' (as one commentator put it) after opposing the popular Falklands war.

In the key country of West Germany the picture is less clear. But the combination of a new conservative government, the recession-induced resurgence of more traditional pocketbook protest - and the circumstantial evidence of only muted response to France's projected neutron warhead - suggest that here, too, the peace demonstrators are risking political irrelevance.

Furthermore, the latest opinion polls show Europeans as a whole - in a reaction that will sound familiar to Americans - to be far more worried about the economy than they are about nuclear issues.

In the Netherlands it had been widely expected that the stable center-right government resulting from the September elections would give final approval to the mid-1980s deployment of new NATO cruise missiles on Dutch soil. Previous musical-chair governments had postponed the Dutch decision - because of majority domestic opposition to the missiles - ever since NATO passed its 1979 resolution to deploy new theater nuclear weapons if the relevant United States-Soviet arms control negotiations failed.

The Dutch voters' September move away from the center that benefited the pro-missile right-wing liberals also benefited the vehemently antimissile left-wing Labor Party, however. The center-liberal coalition heeded the lesson and is again postponing the Hague's final decision on deployments. The strong Dutch antinuclear movement has manifestly become a force to be reckoned with in politics in the Netherlands.

The absence of any similar political clout by the peace movement elsewhere is suggested by a Louis Harris Poll conducted in October for the Paris International Herald Tribune and the Paris Atlantic Institute. In all of the seven NATO countries involved except for Holland and Norway two or three times more respondents worried about unemployment than about nuclear weapons. (Unemployment also topped the list of concerns in Holland and Norway, but by a smaller margin.)

In West Germany the relative inactivity of the antinuclear movement, at least for the moment, is suggested by the lethargic response to news leaks about a forthcoming French decision to produce the controversial enhanced radiation neutron warhead. Similar leaks about American plans back in 1977 really started the whole peace movement here and triggered an outcry against capitalistic weapons that killed people but not buildings, as they were popularly perceived. In the most famous epithet at the time, Egon Bahr, then Social Democratic Party (SPD) Executive Secretary, condemned the neutron weapon as ''a symbol of mental perversion.''

Now - especially given the new nuclear consultation between France and West Germany - antinuclear activists should be even more worried about the immediate impact of neutron weapons on West German territory. This warhead - with a basic mission of breaking up attacking tank concentrations - would be useful only on the West German front with the Warsaw Pact.

Yet, today Mr. Bahr is almost the sole voice again warning against these weapons. And even his warning is mild this time around.

Other indications of a change of mood here include Bahr's and Social Democratic Chairman Willy Brandt's recent caveats to Soviet interlocutors that Moscow must get serious about arms control. (Their more usual role is counseling Washington to get serious about arms control.) Further signposts include the news magazine Der Spiegel's diversion from nuclear issues to domestic political preoccupations - and the notable dearth of press echo from those articles decrying NATO nuclear and chemical weapons that do continue to appear in the news magazine Stern.

This apparent quiescence of antinuclear feeling contradicts the general expectation that this fall's shift from a Social Democratic to a conservative chancellor would quickly lead to polarization here -and possibly induce an out-of-power SPD to move leftward on nuclear issues. Such a shift may well occur before next March's general election. But so far the SPD, with its eye on an increasingly conservative electorate, has done no more than flirt with the temptation to brand the conservatives as ''the rocket party.'' And senior Social Democrats still think their party will give majority support to deployment of the new NATO nuclear missiles - if the US is seen to be negotiating seriously but cannot achieve a prior US-Soviet arms-control agreement.

The specific lack of West German excitement about the French neutron warhead can be explained by particular circumstances, of course. France is not the US. And a socialist French president is not the leftists' bete noirem of an American Reagan.

The broader current lack of antinuclear activism seems to result from more fundamental developments in West German politics, however. These include the substitution of the conservatives for the SPD centrists as a left-wing target; some diversion of the antiestablishment Green Party's political energies from protests to parliaments; and return of the trade unions to urgent paycheck grievances in the continuing economic slump.

In general terms the advent of a conservative government this October has shifted the whole framework of issues to the right (while rendering antinuclear protests politically irrelevant, since they no longer stand any chance of influencing government policy).

Specifically, it has freed SPD centrist ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt from left-wing SPD attacks (and attacks by those leftists who have in disgust dropped out of mainstream politics altogether) by subordinating these sectarian feuds to the battle against a real conservative adversary, Chancellor Helmut Kohl. It has further reunited trade unionists - who had been disillusioned by Schmidt's holding them to two years of below-inflation wage rises - behind their traditional patron of the SPD.

Significantly, within a week of his ouster in Bonn, Schmidt - who is still the nation's most popular politician - single-handedly raised the plummeting SPD by an incredible nine percentage points in the Hesse state election. He demonstrated - in tandem with the trade union-government clash over a government proposal of a six-month wage freeze - that home-owning workers are not yet lost to the conservatives, if only the SPD will not frighten them off by lunging to the left.

Shimdt's withdrawal as chancellor candidate means that his centrist views may not prevail as the party platform. His threat to resign was always his ultimate whip to discipline SPD left-wingers into backing both halves of the NATO two-track talk-and-deploy decision. And there are powerful voices within the SPD now arguing that it is already clear that the US is not negotiating in earnest and that West Germans should therefore reject the new US missiles unconditionally.

A parallel ambivalence is evident on the Green scene. Many mainstream politicians regard the ecological and antinuclear Green Party's entry into six state legislatures in the past two years as a descent into chaos (and a legitimation of the antimissile movement). They fear that the Greens could now win enough seats at federal level to produce a hung Bundestag and an ''ungovernable'' West Germany next March.

Many of the Greens themselves, on the contrary, regard their entry into conventional politics as something close to betrayal, since quite a few of their representatives have dropped protest in the streets (if only because of time pressure) for grudging compromise in the halls of government. In some interpretations this may even amount to a certain lurching reincorporation of protest dropouts into the West German political system. At this point it is too early to tell how the Greens and the apolitical protestors will sort themselves out. In all probability we will now see a race between the rise of antinuclear passions as deployment day draws near and the inherent centrifugal forces of quite diverse environmental, antinuclear weapons, antinuclear power, squatters, and other movements.

At the same time, the prolonged recession - with West Germany's economy entering its third year - is beginning to be felt viscerally. Generous jobless pay and other social welfare prevents physical suffering, but the indignity of forced idleness is gnawing increasingly at workers. The late October antiunemployment and antigovernment rallies by 200,000 trade unionists in three cities highlighted this trend.

At a time of close to 2 million jobless, it seems, the antinuclear demonstrations by post-materialist young people who are primarily middle-class professionals (even if also unemployed, many of them) seem like little more than a luxury to workers.

In this respect the three-hour underground confrontation between miners and environmentalist opponents of a planned nuclear-waste deposit near Braunschweig in late October may be a harbinger of future economy-vs-ecology clashes. It suggests that any breakdown of the economic social contract - a real possibility at this point - might well neutralize rather than reinforce the potential breakdown of the political (nuclear) social contract. The recession might overpower the missiles in the March elections.

It's still too early to judge if all this is only a temporary pause, for regrouping, or if the West German (and with it the Western European) antinuclear movement is in fact now in decline. The situation is in flux, and any number of external and internal developments could influence it decisively.

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