Foreign and defense ministers from seven Western European countries met today to consider proposals for strengthening the "European pillar" in the Atlantic Alliance by revitalizing a virtually moribund consultative organization, the Western European Union.
Opening a two-day meeting in Rome to mark the organization's 30th anniversary, Italian Defense Minister Giovanni Spadolini called for the development of a European defense policy to help offset a strategic imbalance between the United States and its Western European partners. He also urged greater coordination between European countries in the field of arms production.
The Western European Union, in its present form, was founded in 1954 in an attempt to associate West Germany with western defense efforts and to provide a forum for discussion of European security. In theory, it binds its seven members even more closely than the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and includes a commitment to provide automatic assistance to each other in the event of armed attack.
The organization's members are Britain, France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
The current attempts to breathe new life into an organization that has been defunct for much of the past 30 years have been welcomed by the Reagan administration as a sign that that Europeans are taking defense more seriously. U.S. officials have accepted Western European assurances that the move to revive the organization is intended to strengthen NATO rather than to create an alliance within it.
"We would have reservations if there was the slightest evidence that this would in any way detract from NATO. But everyone has made clear that it will not," a senior U.S. official commented.
A more serious source of skepticism derives from the failure of similar initiatives in the past. While creating a European defense system is universally lauded as a good idea in theory, attempts to give it a practical form have run up against entrenched national interests.
Perhaps the most serious issue is whether West Germany should ever be allowed to have a finger on the nuclear trigger. While eager to promote the ideal of Franco-German military cooperation and acknowledging that any future tactical nuclear war is likely to be fought on German soil, successive French governments jealously have guarded their country's independent nuclear deterrent or force de frappe.
Another sensitive issue is the position of Britain, which has traditionally attached more importance to maintaining a special security relationship with the United States than with European countries.
Officials of two countries said they expected that the ministers would steer clear of these potentially divisive problems and concentrate instead on a series of more modest practical steps toward improving the functioning of the Western European Union. A working group of officials from the member countries has recommended strengthening the role of the organization's ministerial council and indirectly elected parliamentary assembly.
The present drive for greater defense coordination among Western European countries was launched in June 1983 by a European Community declaration that called for consultations on collective security.