With minimal public display, the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is pursuing a policy toward Eastern Europe every bit as active as West Germany's. The aim is to open up and maintain contacts with the communist regimes of Warsaw Pact countries in the hope it will eventually be possible to deal with each of them in its own right, rather than as mere satellites of Moscow.
Britain's ``Ostpolitik'' has reached a critical point with the current trip of the foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, to East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. Mrs. Thatcher's soft-spoken representative has already made trips to Romania and Bulgaria.
It was the prime minister herself who initiated the ``opening to the East'' -- with a visit to Hungary last year. When Mrs. Thatcher ventured to Budapest, it was thought she was doing little more than signal an end to her obdurate ``iron lady'' approach to East-West relations.
Sir Geoffrey's continuation of the policy is seen as part of a determined British attempt to forge contacts across the East-West divide. Officials in Whitehall see the inclusion of East Germany and Poland on his itinerary as especially significant.
No other British foreign secretary has visited East Germany. The visit to Warsaw is the first by a senior British minister since the rise of the now-outlawed Solidarity trade union.
Sir Geoffrey's stay in Prague also represents a striking departure in British foreign policy. No foreign secretary has visited the Czechoslovak capital since 1965, three years before the Soviet invasion.
Whitehall officials strongly deny that the aim of Briatin's Ostpolitik is to drive wedges between the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. They note that Thatcher reacted positively to the election of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet Communist Party chief, saying, ``I could do business with him.''
Three objectives can be detected in British policy toward Eastern Europe:
Build on historical relationships, many of which were established before 1939, in the hope that mutual confidence between London and Warsaw Pact capitals can be developed.
Foster bilateral trade between Britain and the countries of Eastern Europe. There is room for growing commerce between Britain and Hungary, for instance, and the same applies in the cases of Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria.
Stress wherever possible the common European heritage, regardless of ideological frontiers, and argue for a pluralistic approach to East-West relations. This means assuming that the Soviet bloc is not a monolith and that Britain will deal with East European countries on a case-by-case basis, with cultural relations being stressed in one instance and economic contacts in another.
An unstated element in the British policy is a wish to explain directly to Warsaw Pact governments Western policies on defense, arms control, and important international economic issues.
British government officials say that in undertaking his series of trips into Eastern Europe, the foreign secretary is not looking for immediate diplomatic results. He wants to build confidence so that, say, 10 or 20 years from now, future governments in Europe, East and West, will be able to reap the benefits.
One early result of the Thatcher Ostpolitik is scheduled for this fall. The Hungarian party leader, Janos Kadar, is to come to London -- the first such visit by a Hungarian Communist chief.