Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's recent visit to Paris may mark a turning point in Soviet-West European relations. His offer to France and Britain to negotiate directly with them regarding their strategic weapons has not been accepted. But neither do the rejections of French President Franois Mitterrand and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher appear to be set in concrete.
Mr. Gorbachev's visit should not be judged by its immediate results, or lack of results. Its impact may be deeper and more significant than it first appeared. This is the consensus of several well-placed West European officials.
``Clearly, Gorbachev was saying to the West Europeans, between the lines: `We may have cheated during the '70s and sought an advantage over you, let us erase our moves and your countermoves and go back to Square 1,' '' one French diplomat says.
``For [former Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei] Gromyko, all that mattered was the dialogue with the United States. Gorbachev seems to believe that the way that leads to a return to d'etente passes through Western Europe,'' a West German official says.
Gorbachev's strategy may open a new era in Soviet-West European relations. Some here believe that he will not treat Europe as a proxy for the US, but as a partner in its own right. He is asking Europe to decouple its nuclear weapons arsenals and strategy from that of the US. And the Soviets are doing this outside the scope of the Helsinki accords, seeking to negotiate without opening human rights issues up to discussion. In essence, analysts say, Gorbachev is telling Western Europe, ``Let us forget our ideological differences and talk business.''
Britain, France, and West Germany are showing a definite interest in the first proposition. Whether they will agree to deal with weapons questions without linking them to progress with regard to human rights in the Soviet Union remains to be seen.
West Germany for one remains strongly committed to d'etente, and intends to use its influence within NATO to bring about a mild and realistic response to Gorbachev's proposals. One German diplomat based in Paris says that while Bonn does not believe that the allies should deal with the Soviet Union separately and bilaterally only, neither does it favor a US-Soviet dialogue above the heads of Western Europe.
Another diplomat says, ``The truly interesting, indeed fascinating aspect of Gorbachev's recent moves, is that they are aimed at propaganda scores only marginally, and that they seem to seek a new global reshuffling of the cards between East and West.
Response to Gorbachev's new approach in Western Europe has been cautious, and no one is ready to shake hands and make a deal. Yet his various offers and announcements with regard to the three components of the Geneva arms talks (President Reagan's space-based defense initiative, known as ``star wars,'' ballistic missiles, and medium-range missiles) are stirring unusual interest in West European quarters, where they are being carefuly studied.