Europeans are warming - cautiously - to Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union. Popularity polls across the continent show Mr. Gorbachev outclassing President Reagan, and powerful European voices are beginning to call for greater economic and political cooperation with Moscow. European leaders have largely embraced the Soviet leader's proposal to remove all medium-range missiles from European soil. European foreign ministers met in Brussels recently and accepted Soviet proposals on several ideas, including that of holding an international Middle East peace conference.
Both the British and French prime ministers plan to visit Moscow this spring, while the Soviet leader may pay his first visit to West Germany later in the year.
This new warmth, Europeans stress, is tempered with caution.
If Gorbachev hopes to call into question the durability of the Atlantic alliance, he will fail, say officials and analysts contacted by the Monitor in London, Paris, and Bonn. Washington has been quick to reassure its NATO allies that removal of medium-range missiles will not ``delink'' the US from its commitment to European security.
Attitudes vary, of course, from country to country. Most positive about Gorbachev are the Germans. Chancellor Helmut Kohl says that Gorbachev reforms could represent a turning point in East-West relations. Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher has offered to start ``large-scale economic cooperation'' with the Soviet Union.
There are clear reasons for German eagerness. The East-West divide runs through their country, so any improvement in the East-West climate directly affects Germans. By history and habit, German exporters dominate business in Eastern Europe.
In contrast, the French radiate caution. ``Vigilance'' is Foreign Minister Jean-Bernard Raimond's watchword when discussing Gorbachev. Mr. Raimond, who was French ambassador to the Soviet Union before taking his present post, says Europeans ``watch everything that is new in the Soviet Union'' while ``not making any concessions on Western interests.''
In the French view, there is little the West can do to help the Soviets liberalize, so they see no reason to beam with enthusiasm. D'etente during the 1970s is remembered here as a commercial and diplomatic disappointment. Under President Francois Mitterrand, the French have been implacably anti-Soviet.
The British view fits neatly in between the German and the French.
As Prime Minister Margeret Thatcher readies for her first visit to Moscow, British officials are hopeful for progress in arms control and in regional disputes such as Afghanistan. But they are downright hostile to any suggestions that they will stab Mr. Reagan in the back on any of these issues.
``Mrs. Thatcher can't go to Moscow and step into Reagan's shoes while he temporarily cannot function,'' explains one British official, referring to perceptions of Reagan's weakness in the wake of the Iran-contra affair. ``She can only express joint allied positions.''
Defining these interests often is difficult these days. Trade tensions between Europe and the United States are growing. So are arms control tensions. Two US arms control specialists recently visiting European capitals were told by leaders here they did not want to see any fiddling with interpretation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
These differences put the US at a disadvantage with the Soviet Union in the battle for European public opinion.
One British opinion poll showed that more Britons thought Gorbachev was sincere about arms control than thought Reagan was. In a French opinion poll, only 34 percent of Frenchmen thought Reagan is helping the American image abroad, compared with 54 percent who say they think Gorbachev is helping the Soviet image.
``While Gorbachev's domestic changes are making the Soviet Union more popular in Europe,'' says Archie Brown, a Soviet specialist at St. Anthony's College, Oxford, ``the uncompromising line taken by President Reagan on such issues as SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative] is making the United States less popular in Europe.''