Europe, US put out feelers on pipeline compromise
Brussels — The public rhetoric may be deafening. But through purring telephone lines and silent underwater telex cables, low-key contacts aimed at settling the transatlantic row over the Soviet gas pipeline have begun.
''Both sides are working toward a joint conclusion where there will be no winners or losers - the recreation of a consensus that goes beyond the very immediate and specific issue,'' Viscount Etienne Davignon, the European Community (EC) commissioner for industry and energy, recently told the Monitor.
According to diplomats, however, such a ''joint conclusion'' to what could be the most serious conflict to divide the Western alliance in decades may be a long way off. But few observers doubt that the necessary political will now exists on both sides of the Atlantic to bring the dispute to an amiable end.
How ''joint'' that end may be - and how speedily it will come - may be determined over the next few weeks in behind-the-scenes contacts now being made.
EC sources report that various ''trade-offs'' are being considered in West European capitals for submission to the Reagan administration in exchange for some relaxation of the sanctions. They include pledges to boost investments in natural gas exploration and production in Western Europe, pledges to lower targets for gas consumption, restricting high-technology exports to the USSR, and delaying participation in the second phase of pipeline construction.
Increased interest rates on export credits extended to the Soviet Union have been ruled out as an option by the Europeans, according to informed sources. Financial experts note that under an agreement reached this spring within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the rates for Moscow were effectively raised from 7.8 percent to 12.15 to 12.40 percent, leaving little room for maneuver now. A limit on the volume and maturity terms for credits may be possible, European analysts concede.
Some sources say a package of ''olive branch'' proposals may be approved by EC foreign ministers at their regular monthly meeting next week (Sept. 20 and 21 ), when the issue will be high on the agenda.
But most observers expect French opposition to hold up agreement until the European case has been put forcefully in US courts.
Meanwhile, senior American and European officials have begun to turn down the volume on the conflict, and to make louder noises on the side of peace.
British Foreign Secretary Francis Pym said on a visit to Copenhagen last week that the pipeline dispute had been exaggerated in the public mind, even with reports that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was ''privately'' outraged at the Reagan administration for trying to punish British firms. Significantly, Mrs. Thatcher did not go public with her outrage, as she had earlier.
West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt has been playing down the dispute, and in Brussels earlier this week the US ambassador to NATO, W. Tapley Bennett, said that the alliance ''has not been too much affected.''
Quiet diplomacy began earlier this month with a meeting in London of government representatives from the four European countries most directly affected by the US embargo - France, West Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
''Various proposals were put forward in a spirit of cooperation and solidarity,'' a British spokesman said. According to diplomats, those proposals are being circulated in other European capitals.
Last week, US Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan announced the administration would welcome a formal proposal from the Europeans offering a possible solution to the dispute. Senior US officials were quoted as saying this constituted ''an open invitation'' to the Europeans.
American and European sources emphasize that ''no detailed transatlantic negotiations as such'' are taking place, ''only exploratory talks.'' Nor is a high-level meeting between the two sides being planned, contrary to some reports.
But evidence has been growing in recent weeks that the political will to solve the dispute clearly exists.