Belgian Prime Minister Wilfried Martens, speaking for the European Community, told President Reagan yesterday that high interest rates in the United States are making it more difficult for European nations to solve their own economic problems.
It was the same message that European leaders had carried to the president at the economic summit in Ottawa last July, when German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt said that interest rates were "now the highest since Jesus Christ."
Martens, from accounts of those present, did not use such vivid language in his meeting with Reagan yesterday, but he did reiterate European concerns about U.S. interest rates. The communique issued at the economic summit said that continued high interest rates would threaten "productive investment," one of the major enunciated goals of the Reagan economic program.
Reagan, seeing off his visitor at the White House diplomatic entrance in a driving rainstorm, said that he and Martens had conducted "a very valuable meeting and covered a great range of issues." He made no mention of interest rates but said there was "great agreement" on the U.S. position on El Salvador and the necessity of reducing nuclear forces in Europe.
In his brief reply, Martens said that the differences between the United States and Europe were more of "tactics" than "substance." But he also referred to "an open and frank exchange of views," a common diplomatic euphemism for disagreement.
In fact, U.S. officials made no attempt to hide the unhappiness of European officials over interest rates, even while stressing agreement on other issues.
"American high interest rates are making it more difficult for Europe to deal with its own problems," a Reagan administration official quoted Martens as saying at the meeting on behalf of the 10-nation European Community.
Martens and Belgian Foreign Minister Leo Tindemans met with Reagan, Vice President Bush and Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. in the Oval Office and held a separate meeting with Haig in Blair House.
In another development, White House deputy press secretary Larry Speakes rebuked AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland for referring to Reagan's policies as "Jonestown economics." Speakes called the comment a "sad, sad choice of words" and said that Kirkland "seems to have gone beyond the bounds of propriety."
The labor leader's comment was made Tuesday to Bush during a meeting of the AFL-CIO Executive Council in Bal Harbour, Fla., and repeated to reporters. Kirkland explained his comment by saying that the Reagan program "administers economic Kool-Aid to the poor and the deprived and the unemployed in this country." It was a reference to the poisoned fruit-drink mixture that killed hundreds of cult followers of the Rev. Jim Jones in Guyana in 1978.