Brussels — The United States and its West European allies remain at odds over how to deal with Libya's role in international terrorism, although the differences seem to have been narrowed somewhat in recent weeks. ``We have some differences on what tactics will be the most successful,'' US Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead said here last week at the end of an eight-nation tour designed to drum up support for recent administration moves to isolate Libya. ``But we have no differences on our objective.''
A special meeting of European Community foreign ministers here yesterday appeared to confirm that view. After several hours of discussion, the ministers declined to follow the US lead and impose a complete economic boycott on Libya. But, as of press time, indications were that they would agree to slow or halt arms sales to Libya. It was also likely that the ministers would step up cooperation on fighting international terrorism.
Few analysts, in fact, had expected the ministers to approve tough collective action against Libya at the meeting. Twelve countries with such varied interests rarely find it easy to take joint decisions, and no EC nation appears to have interest in jeopardizing its relations with the Arab world, particularly when the effectiveness of economic sanctions in forcing countries to change policy is open to doubt.
Yet several West European governments, despite their initial reluctance, now appear to be ready to consider putting some form of economic pressure on Libya.
That pressure could include freezing trade relations, according to European officials. Most of the EC countries, moreover, have said that they will do nothing to undercut the measures taken by the Reagan administration against Libya following terrorist attacks at Rome and Vienna airports on Dec. 27 in which 19 people, including five Americans, were killed.
``We haven't got as much in the way of response as we hoped for,'' Mr. Whitehead said. ``But all the countries I've visited are prepared to consider taking steps to participate in this battle. I'm optimistic that the trip will, in time, produce results.'' The State Department official visited Britain, the Netherlands, Greece, Turkey, France, Spain, Belgium, and Italy.
Particularly important to the US is how Italy -- easily Libya's largest Western trading and investment partner -- will react to its plea for allied support.
After Whitehead's visit to Rome, a senior Italian Foreign Ministry official said that Italy ``might decide not to increase our trade relations'' with Libya, adding that there was ``enough evidence of Libyan involvement'' in terrorist activities to warrant a clear response.''
``The final result could be even a reduction in [Libya's] global relations,'' Antonio Badini, senior foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, reportedly said.
According to the International Monetary Fund, Italy's imports from Libya -- mainly oil -- were worth $2.5 billion, while exports totaled $1.8 billion in 1984. Italy's business investments in the country run to more than $1.2 billion.
Overall, trade between Libya and the countries of Western Europe -- including Switzerland and Turkey, which do not belong to the EC -- is worth more than $10 billion a year, according to the IMF.
Other positive developments during Whitehead's trip included British pledges to support noneconomic measures against Libya and promises to persuade other EC countries to do the same.