Brussels — When President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev meet in Geneva next week for the first superpower summit in six years, arms control will be high on the agenda. But the European peace movement's message of pacifism and disarmament is not likely to be heard. The reason is that the peace movement has become deeply divided and no longer completely certain of its role.
James Hinton, a leader of Britain's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, says the peace movement has been ``thrashing around'' ever since it lost its key battle on deployment of new NATO missiles on the Continent at the end of 1983. Another activist says, ``There is little agreement on how to take the campaign forward over the next few years.''
There is, however, agreement among many leaders that the movement must move quickly to broaden its field of concern and activity if it is to continue to attract Europe's left-of-center rank and file -- and keep the movement alive.
The peace movement in Europe reached a peak of visibility during the ``hot autumn'' of 1983.
More than a quarter of a million people poured out onto the streets of London; 400,000 did the same in Brussels. An estimated 1 million marched in several West German cities. Hundreds of thousands said ``no to nukes'' in Amsterdam and The Hague.
In October 1983, it was only weeks before the first of 572 new United States-built, NATO-sponsored nuclear missiles were due to be deployed in Western Europe, and the European peace movement was buoyant, growing, and full of hope.
Peace activists were confident they could prevent deployment from going ahead if only they were able to mobilized enough public pressure. They believed they were about to strike a blow for peace which would be heard in the halls of the White House and the Kremlin.
Today, however, that blow for peace has become a measure of defeat.
The best efforts of peace activists from Scandinavia to Spain failed to prevent the 1979 NATO plan for modernizing the alliance's nuclear forces from proceeding on schedule. This has been the focal point of pacifist activism for years.
During the past two years, new US cruise and Pershing II nuclear missiles have been deployed in Britain, West Germany, Italy, and Belgium, despite strong public opposition. The Dutch government earlier this month joined those four in formally agreeing to station the NATO missiles on its territory.
``Opposition to the missiles is still strong,'' says Gied Ten Berge, a leader of the Dutch Interchurch Peace Council, which organizes pacifist action. ``But we all recognize we have lost a major battle.''
With the missile question behind them, many leaders of the peace movement are looking for new ways to mobilize support and broaden its base of support.
``We can't expect that an antiweapon approach alone will succeed,'' says Mient Jan Faber, head of the Dutch InterChurch Peace Council. ``That is the lesson of the past few years.'' He urges peace activists to ``emerge from the subculture'' and enter the mainstream of politcal life.
That is, in fact, the road already being taken in several countries -- notably West Germany. There, the radical, antinuclear Greens party entered the government earlier this month for the first time, after agreeing to form a coalition with the Social Democrats in the state of Hesse. The Greens will assume control of the energy and environmental ministry and will take up a junior post in the office of women's affairs. Recent public opinion polls have shown that the Greens continue to hover at or near the
5 percent level needed to hold on to their seats in the Bundestag, the lower house of the national legislature.
In Belgium, too, political parties reflecting peace movement thinking have made major gains recently. Last month, for example, the French-speaking Ecolo party and the Dutch-speaking Agalev party won more than 6 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections, doubling their win over the last elections four years ago.
Within the peace movement itself, the debate over future policy has begun to focus on the extent to which the movement should be prepared to deal with broader issues.
``The new understanding throughout this country about the links between poverty and deprivation at home and abroad and the arms race is opening up all kinds of new perspectives,'' says Monseigneur Bruce Kent of Britain's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Many peace movement leaders believe that the movement has lost its way because it concentrated on the missile issue, while not paying enough attention to influencing national foreign policy or opposing membership in NATO.
Joy Hurcombe, a vice-chairman of the British peace group, has been quoted as saying that there is a limit to how much people are willing to be frightened by nuclear weapons. ``You have to raise arguments about NATO,'' she said.
Many peace activists have also been trying to focus public attention on the role European countries, caught in the firing-line between the two superpowers, can play in influencing American and Soviet leaders -- but haven't so far.
``The smaller countries, especially, have not done enough,'' says Pierre Galand, president of the Belgian National Action Committee for for Peace and Development. Last month the committee organized a demonstration in Brussels using the slogan, ``Disarm in order to develop.''
Also last month, the British disarmament campaign organized an antinuclear march through downtown London (attended by about 100,000) emphasizing, in their words, ``Britain's crucial role in leading the world back from the brink of nuclear destruction.'' Campaign leaders have said that this role could be their country's ``post-colonial mission in life.''
Not surprisingly, among the new targets of the pacifists in recent months has been the Reagan administration's multi-billion dollar research program into a space-based defense system -- the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), commonly known as ``star wars.''
A British group, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Advertising Campaign, took out at full-page advertisement in the Guardian newspaper earlier this month, arguing that SDI ``proposes a further immense increment of weaponry -- not, as Mr. Reagan originally claimed, to remove the nuclear threat, but to strengthen it.''
And in Belgium, the committee for peace and development is actively campaigning against the government's expected decision to support Belgian participation in the US program.
But there does not appear to be any pan-European strategy aimed at capitalizing on the SDI question as a way of reenergizing the European peace movement -- at least for the time being.
Similarly, there has been no coordinated, or even uncoordinated, attempt by the movement to become involved in the presummit arms control parrying undertaken by the US and the Soviet Union with such flair in recent weeks. This stems in part from the movement's deep-seated cynicism about superpower sincerity, and also from a refusal to become entangled in what one leader called ``the numbers game.''
What is certain is that the peace movement will have to begin to define more precisely its aims and strategy in the ``post-missile'' era in order to avoid losing public opinion to pro-NATO opinion-makers, particularly those who argue that the arms race is not the fault of the West but of the Soviet Union.
In fact, Belgian and Dutch prime ministers Wilfried Martens and Ruud Lubbers were so confident that opinion had already swung in that direction, they both insisted earlier this year that their thinking on missile deployment would not be affected by public opinion.
Even Lord Carrington, the NATO secretary-general, has seen fit to try to exploit the rudderless image the peace movement is projecting.
``I find that antinuclear campaigners are rather better at publicizing what everyone knows, than at explaining precisely what their policy is, and why we should assume it to involve less risk than the overall policy we have,'' he said recently. ``We need to consider what is likely to help the negotiating process [in Geneva] and what is not.''
No one believes, however, that the European peace movement, while dazed, is out for the count.
Said Mr. Faber of the Dutch peace group, conceding the movement had suffered a defeat in the deployment of the NATO missiles in Western Europe: ``It's the end of a chapter in a long book. But it's not the end of the book.''