W. Europe eyes non-NATO defense talks

''At this stage it's only talk,'' concedes an almost apologetic French official who supports the plan. ''But all good ideas take time to grow, n'est ce pas?''

The seeds of the Western European Union (WEU) were planted 30 years ago, but they disappeared in the shadow of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Now the French have planted new seeds - to be coaxed along in Rome later this month when foreign and defense ministers from seven West European countries meet under WEU auspices for the first time in decades. The French played host to the foreign ministers of Britain, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg last June in an effort to revive the long-dormant WEU.

Supporters hope the organization will bolster European cooperation on defense , creating a ''European pillar'' within NATO to counterbalance the United States.

But some US officials fear a strong ''Europe only'' wing of NATO - even if merely a glorifed talking shop - could weaken the alliance by splitting Europe from the US. Some Europeans agree.

''There is a real risk that friction with the US would be a function of the WEU's success,'' a senior European diplomat at NATO headquarters says.

At its founding in 1954, the WEU was the only European organization authorized to examine defense questions. Fourteen years later, NATO's so-called Eurogroup (which now counts 12 countries) was formed to coordinate Europe's arms procurement policies.

France never joined the WEU and the organization nearly died. Meanwhile, within NATO Europe's voice was scarcely heard above the roar of the US.

In 1976, the independent European Program Group was set up to take over where the WEU never began. This group included France, but the French did not like it too much, saying the 11-member group was too large.

There are many reasons why the current effort to revive the WEU may succeed. Until recently, Europeans did not doubt that the US would protect Western Europe against attack. Now many Europeans - particularly the French - see a need to strengthen their defenses through cooperation.

Last June the Senate narrowly defeated a proposal that would have led to the withdrawal of thousands of US combat troops from Western Europe if the allies did not agree to increase their defense spending. That proposal is expected to be reintroduced next year.

West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, at first cool to efforts to revive the WEU, said recently that Europe needs a security policy that would act as a ''third dimension'' to European cooperation in economic and political affairs.

Some argue, however, that the WEU could become a forum that might work against the interests of the US if it became too strong.

''A more tightly coordinated and therefore more powerful Europe,'' the Economist wrote recently, ''might in fact pursue policies the Americans would dislike. And, if it did, American voters' support for keeping the American army in Europe might grow much cooler. Which would not exactly help the defense of Europe.''

NATO's new secretary-general, Lord Carrington, raised similar concerns this week, when he supported the WEU as a forum for improving European defense cooperation as long as the US did not view such a move as an attempt to ''de-couple'' Europe from the US.

Despite their cautious public support for the WEU, privately, British officials are less enthusiastic. ''It's difficult to see how the WEU could be effective,'' said a diplomat at NATO headquarters here, ''without at the same time damaging the NATO alliance.''

Some cynics see the French plan to relaunch the WEU as an attempt to turn the organization into an ''arms bazaar,'' promoting the sale of French weaponry to other Europeans and the rest of the world.

Officials say the WEU is likely to be given a political boost when foreign and defense ministers meet in Rome but that concrete steps toward greater European defense cooperation will be left to some time in the future.

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