MARGARET THATCHER appears set to continue as Madam Interlocutor between the Soviet and American superpowers. But Britain's European neighbors are beginning to wonder when the prime minister will decide to open a friendly dialogue with them too. Mrs. Thatcher went to Washington this past week to say goodbye to her old political friend President Ronald Reagan and to reacquaint herself with President-elect George Bush. Next month, she will welcome Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to 10 Downing Street.
The other eleven members of the European Community (EC), meanwhile, have been left with the impression, that Thatcher is a distant, distracted friend as far as they are concerned.
Several British prime ministers - Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan (though not Edward Heath) - have preferred the American ``special relationship'' to contacts with Brussels. But Thatcher seems particularly committed to it. She is the first since Macmillan to attempt a bridging role between Washington and Moscow.
The invitation to Gorbachev follows from Thatcher's earlier contacts with him - in London shortly before his appointment, later during an official visit to Moscow, and then when the Soviet leader touched down in Britain on his way to the US last year. She regards Gorbachev as ``a man I can do business with,'' and has made it plain that she wants to use their relationship to ease East-West tension.
The prime minister is equally determined to ensure that the transition from Mr. Reagan to Mr. Bush does not mean any weakening of relations across the Atlantic. Some leading Conservatives suggest that her dealings with the incoming President may be more satisfactory than those she has enjoyed with Reagan: While Reagan is on Thatcher's ideological wavelength, he has at times irritated her by his lack of attention to detail and by some unilateral US moves, like the bombing of Libya and the invasion of Grenada.
Toward the EC, Thatcher has lately shown a severe face. Her particular wrath has been reserved for the president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, whom she indirectly castigated in a speech in Bruges for wanting to enmesh the EC in a bureaucracy that would undermine British sovereignty.
Her comments drew measured criticism from West Germany, France and Italy, all of which feel that their ties within Europe are more vital than their transatlantic connections.
Not all Thatcher's officials believe her emphasis is correct. While they refuse to make comments on record, many appear to think there are risks in letting EC member states believe that Britain's ties with the Continent are a second priority. Among the criticisms being made:
The EC is engaged on an effort to create a ``single European market'' by 1992. Thatcher's approach is thought to undercut these moves.
Future trends in US policy are likely to include pressure on the Europeans to spend more on their own defense. This implies greater defense cooperation between Britain, West Germany and France. But so long as Thatcher fosters a special relationship with Washington, she is thought unlikely to be a wholehearted advocate of closer European defense integration.
Thatcher is the longest-serving head of government in the West. This gives her a unique opportunity to act not only as a bridge between Washington and Moscow, but between Washington and Brussels. But her skeptical attitude towards Brussels Eurocrats blocks the latter line of approach.
Not even the opposition Labour Party criticises Thatcher for having built up intimate political relationships with both superpowers. This is seen as a striking diplomatic achievement that does Britain little but good.
Where they fault her is in apparently failing to notice that Britain's interests do not always coincide with those of the US.
Some of the prime minister's subtler critics note that Bush may wish her to play a more sympathetic role in the EC. If the need is to persuade Europeans to do more to defend themselves, what better way to achieve this than to ask Thatcher to make the case? She might also to keep the EC from becoming an inward-looking economic grouping - a ``Fortress Europe'' hostile to US trading interests.