As a superpower deal on eliminating medium-range nuclear missiles gets closer, doubts about the United States' commitment to Europe gradually are pushing Western Europe toward greater solidarity on defense. The emphasis is on ``gradually.'' But there is movement. At the end of October the seven-member Western European Union (WEU) wrote a surprisingly strong ``platform'' of common defense. The British are thawing toward Europe, and there is even speculation about possible British participation in a proposed French-German brigade.
Underneath it all is a growing concern the US is losing interest in Europe. European officials and politicians worry that Congress may pull the GIs out, and that the US's new Latin and Asian immigrants are drawing interest away from the old continent. Europe, they contend, must be ready to compensate for a reduced defense guarantee from Washington.
It was under this prodding that defense and foreign ministers from the WEU member states of Britain, France, West Germany, Italy, and the Benelux countries gathered on Oct. 27 in The Hague. There, they more or less fulfilled French Premier Jacques Chirac's announced wish of late 1986 for a vigorous new charter for this four-decade-old but rather moribund alliance.
Basically the ``platform'' - the word ``charter'' was avoided, since it was deemed potentially provocative to the US - was a French-German tradeoff. The French nudged the nuclear gun-shy West Germans into endorsing the need for nuclear as well as conventional forces to guarantee European security. The West Germans nudged the French from their traditional reluctance to commit themselves to conventional engagement to sign a pledge that every member would defend allies ``at their borders.'' The Italians, according to European diplomatic sources in Bonn, nearly upset the carefully balanced compromise by proposing at The Hague meeting that any mention of nuclear weapons be dropped. But the other members basically ignored the Italians and proceeded with their original intentions.
The strength of the platform in these two points pleasantly surprised some European military planners who had expected their political counterparts to water down the results. The rest of the platform was more timid. While pointing to the vulnerability of Europe, it stressed alliance with the US. And, it defined an aim of bolstering the ``European pillar'' of NATO. The caution of the statement in this regard reflected British and West German insistence that the WEU do nothing to make Washington think Europeans were trying to gang up on it or to supplant the trans-Atlantic alliance.
The WEU has the potential for considerable development. It is the one forum where the defense and foreign ministers of the leading European countries all sit at the same table. (France sits at the political, but not the military, table in NATO. The European Community, since it counts neutral Ireland among its members, does not draw defense ministers into consultations.)
At The Hague the 14 defense and foreign ministers made a European case for strong conventional defense and nuclear deterrence with a candor that would have been controversial if done in the American-dominated NATO. And the idea of building more of a common defense is attractive enough to have the Portuguese, Spanish, and Greeks knocking for admission to WEU - and to let the WEU demand a commitment to strong defense as a precondition for membership. Furthermore, the WEU is providing the umbrella under which five members - all except West Germany and Luxembourg - have sent naval forces to the Gulf.
One new twist is the interest that the notion of an integrated European force is currently arousing among British conservatives, who for so long have preferred the special Anglo-American relationship over ties to the continent. Currently, the West Germany daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported last week, the influential Bow Group of 100 conservatives, including numerous members of parliament, is urging the WEU to form a multinational force that would include Britons.