The State of Western Europe

According to the President, the State of the Union could hardly be better. What about the state of Western Europe? Brief visits to London, Bonn, Paris, and Brussels scarcely provide a basis for a definitive judgment. But among the strongest impressions a visitor brings back is the sense of uneasiness and uncertainty of the West Europeans about their future.

That should not be surprising. The foundations of their confidence and progress for 25 years - NATO, the European Community, and strong economies - have been badly shaken. The result is anxiety for both the immediate and the long-term outlook.

* They are concerned first of all about their economies. Recovery in Western Europe is much slower than in the United States. For that the Europeans blame high US interest rates and its huge deficits, which drive up their interest rates and siphon off capital. Even with recovery they worry if their industries can absorb the unprecedented 20 million jobless. After all, in the 1970s the European economy did not expand jobs as the US did; and it may be falling well behind the US and Japan in developing the emerging high-technology industries.

* The European Community is itself a source of deep concern. It faces a crisis over agricultural subsidies and surpluses, the sharing of the budget, and the need for added resources. These divisive issues, which have plagued the Community for some years, can no longer be ducked. Most observers think a solution will be found, if only because no member will want to take the onus of a collapse. But the Community also suffers from serious stagnation. One cause is the institutional weakness of the Commission, the Council of Ministers, and the Parliament. The chances for new initiatives are also clouded by the attitudes of some key members (like Margaret Thatcher, who is suspected of wanting to water down the Community), and of new and prospective members like Greece and Spain. Thus those who see the Community as the only way for Europe to control its own destiny or to exert major influence feel a desperation about the need and possibility for progress.

* Security involves many crosscurrents. The Soviet Union is distrusted and seen as seeking to divide Western Europe from the US. Thus NATO still enjoys wide support as the framework for the US guarantee. The renewal of US strength and assurance is generally welcomed. But US unilateralism is resented, and truculence toward the USSR arouses serious anxiety. So does talk of ''Star Wars'' or a maritime strategy. In a recent editorial, the respected Financial Times of London said that public ''confidence in American leadership of the Alliance is at a low ebb.'' Fear of nuclear war has risen. There is little public support for NATO's reliance on nuclear weapons to repel a conventional attack, according to an opinion survey by the Atlantic Institute of Paris. And yet European governments are unwilling to spend the money needed to improve conventional forces in order to raise the nuclear threshold. Still, France is moving toward joint planning for its ground forces and for deploying them in Germany accordingly.

* Finally, questions arise about Germany since the Social Democratic Party shifted on intermediate-range missiles and repudiated Helmut Schmidt at the party convention last fall. This shattered the consensus on security issues which had prevailed since 1959. The Helmut Kohl government staunchly supports NATO. Yet the erosion of confidence in the US and of the hopes for the European Community have heightened the interest of most Germans in relations with East Germany and therefore in East-West detente. While conceding that fact, German leaders and analysts insist that it does not imply any shift in Germany's commitment to the West. Even so, this special interest inevitably results in a different perspective and priority on East-West issues in some instances. French concern about keeping Germany firmly tied to the West has certainly prompted some of the initiatives of Francois Mitterrand toward cooperation, especially in the defense field.

How do these tendencies relate to the notion that the US and its European allies are deeply divided and drifting further apart? Clearly there are major frictions and divergences. But they do not negate the basic security and economic interests, which are shared and which require continuing cooperation for the benefit of both the US and Europe. Yet they may make it much harder to maintain cooperation. Inadequate US leadership and unilateralism are poor bases for working together. And European self-doubt and ineffectiveness are serious obstacles to partnership. These pose the gravest threat to collaboration rather than a real clash of interests. It will take hard work on both sides to overcome them.

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