As President Reagan begins his tour of Europe, the United States and key European allies are divided over the question of subsidized exports to the Soviet Union.
High-level officials paving the way for the European summit had hoped to narrow the differences over this contentious issue, but were unable to reach agreement at a presummit meeting in Paris last week.
Most of the text of the final joint communique for the seven-nation economic summit meeting set for June 4-6 at Versailles already has been written--although the section dealing with East-West trade has yet to be agreed on. Leaders of the allied nations will have to wrestle with the issue at the summit.
The debate over subsidized exports is far from academic.
Thousands of European jobs depend on trade with the Soviets at a time when unemployment in Western Europe is increasing. But Mr. Reagan and his advisers argue that West European government trade guarantees and low-interest loans to the USSR make it easier for the Soviets to pursue their military buildup. Reagan aides say the US is not asking its allies to cut off all trade with the Soviet Union, but it is asking that the Europeans stop making it easy for the Soviets to pay for that trade.
''I believe that now is a time not to continue subsidizing them with cheap credit,'' Reagan said in an interview with four West European television reporters on the eve of his departure for Europe.
The President said he is not proposing a return to the cold war with the Soviets, but a ''temporary period of restraint while we show them what we have to offer if they will give up their expansionist policies and their obvious militarism.''
It was also learned that the President was keeping open the option of slowing down the projected multibillion-dollar Soviet-West European gas pipeline by withholding American technology from the venture. If the Europeans agreed to restrict their trade guarantees and export credits to the Soviets, then presumably the US would halt its opposition to the pipeline.
When it comes to credits, however, France officially says it cannot go against agreements reached in the past with the Soviets. French President Francois Mitterrand, however, seems to be seeking a middle road. He told American reporters recently, ''We do not want to suppress trade with the Russians, but we do not want to increase their resources either.''
In an interview with ABC News May 30, Mitterrand said France had agreed with other members of the European Community to cease granting the Soviets intermediate-range credits whose terms were softer than the normal terms of international trade. He added that France was willing to discuss the volume of trade with the USSR but did not want a trade embargo with the Soviets.
In a jab at the Reagan administration, Mitterrand said, ''I haven't heard it said that the United States is planning to stop selling grain. . . .''
West European officials repeatedly charge that Reagan undercut his argument for trade restrictions by deciding to lift the partial US grain embargo against the Soviet Union imposed by President--Carter following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, West Germany, which has long had the lion's share of Western trade with the East bloc, is said to be resisting American suggestions that it sharply cut its trade guarantees to the Soviets. But a US State Department official said that so far, West German officials ''have played a very constructive role'' in talks conducted among the allies on East-West trade.