Economics is not the main reason for Europe's refusal to follow the United States in imposing sanctions on Libya. Hard political reasoning is. The Europeans believe sanctions don't work. They want to retain good ties in the Arab world and some believe that the US wrath vented against Libya is the result of a short-lived news-media frenzy. Most of all, they fear that an emotional US response could increase instability in the Mideast.
These conclusions follow talks with diplomats and political analysts in Paris, Brussels, and London. In their view, European nations will not band together to impose sanctions, despite the tour of European capitals this week by Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead to drum up their support.
At best, these analysts say, European foreign ministers meeting Tuesday in The Hague to consider sanctions will try to avoid a lasting break within the Atlantic alliance by taking symbolic actions against Libya.
Robert Elliot of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies criticized how the Reagan administration handled Libya.
``The Americans played like poker players when they should been playing like chess players,'' he says. Instead of acting rationally and prudently, the administration responded with outrage and passion. ``All the Americans offered were generalizations without hard evidence or practical suggestions. The result was conterproductive,'' he says, and it threatens a conflict with the Russians and the Arabs.
Such fears explain why the Europeans scorn President Reagan's statement that allied ``problems with their own economies'' will ``render [imposing sanctions] nearly impossible.'' Although Libya exports oil to Europe and purchases everything from drilling equipment to weaponry with its earnings, trade ties with 31/2 million Libyans are trivial to a European Community of nearly 350 million people.
Philippe Moreau Defarges, of the French Institute of International Affairs, says Europe's resistance stems from the fact that ``we don't believe in sanctions.''
``As we saw with Iran, Afghanistan, Poland, and South Africa, they don't work,'' he says.
Europeans also fear that striking out at Libya could create situations which will threaten them directly. Europe remains much more dependent on Arab nations for its oil than the US, and pushing Libya too hard could cause a broad Arab backlash against the West, they reason. It also could increase terrorism.
Moreau Defarges says, ``We're much closer to Libya than the United States, and if we're too hard on [Libyan leader Col. Muammar] Qaddafi, we could cause a [problem] which could escalate out of control and threaten us most.''
Also, many Europeans believe the US is overreacting in its response to Libya. They claim that evidence linking Libya with terrorist Abu Nidal and Palestinian terrorism could just as plausibly be directed at Syria or even the Soviet Union.
They believe that if Libya isn't a world power, why worry about it so much?
Few Europeans believe that punishing Libya will solve the problem of international terrorism. Instead, some diplomats said that, notwithstanding recent attacks, deliberate, measured cooperation is bringing progress in the fight against terrorism.
The same cooperation may now be needed to avoid a crisis in the Atlantic alliance. A number of Europeans are angered at President Reagan's demands that they follow his lead. They say if the US consults rather than announces moves, face-saving agreements can be worked out.
In spite of their ire, Western European nations will probably respond with at least some symbolic support for the sanctions at Tuesday's meeting of foreign ministers.
Almost surely, the measures will stop short of bringing the Europeans into direct conflict with Libya. At the same time, the measures should calm the dispute over Libya enough to place it into the proper perspective of concerns among members of the Atlantic alliance.
``The important problems facing the alliance are the Strategic Defense Initiative and the relationship with the Soviet Union,'' says Moreau Defarges. ``Libya is not an important problem.''