West European members of NATO are divided over the idea of freezing current levels of medium-range missiles in Europe, deployed by both superpowers in order to improve prospects for new arms control talks.
In Britain and West Germany, which began installing cruise and Pershing II missiles a year ago, officials expressed strong opposition to any moratorium or slowdown in NATO's plans to base 572 of the missiles in five European countries by the end of 1988.
But in Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy, where governments still face elections or serious party conflicts over the missiles, officials said a mutual U.S.-Soviet freeze that improved chances of arms talks would be seen as a boon to detente and domestic political harmony.
The moratorium idea has surfaced as a possible topic for discussion between Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko when they meet in Geneva on Jan. 7 to set an agenda for negotiations to control nuclear arms and space weapons.
The Soviet Union walked out of separate talks on strategic and intermediate-range nuclear weapons a year ago when the first new NATO missiles arrived in Europe. Moscow has insisted that the missiles must be removed before negotiations can resume, but lately there have been signs that it has tempered that demand.
A senior Kremlin official, Leonid Zamyatin, indicated in a newspaper article today that the Soviet Union might now seek a freeze on deployment of U.S. medium-range missiles in Europe.
NATO sources reported that 102 missiles are based in Western Europe, with 54 Pershing IIs in West Germany, 32 cruises in Britain and 16 cruises in Italy. The Soviet Union has deployed 378 triple-warhead SS20s and is building sites that can accommodate up to 100 more, the sources said.
In Bonn, a senior Chancellery adviser said, "It would be a mistake to freeze ourselves into inferiority just to bring the Soviets back to the bargaining table." He said a mutual freeze would amount to a substantial concession before talks were resumed because Moscow would retain a 10-to-1 warhead advantage in medium-range nuclear missiles.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who will meet with President Reagan on Friday to discuss East-West and arms control issues, proudly touts his country's deployment of Pershing II missiles in the face of massive opposition as proof of his government's loyalty to the alliance.
But he is said also to be unwilling to expose his fragile center-right coalition again to political repercussions of deep-seated anxieties about nuclear weapons felt by many West Germans.
"The other side could go ahead again later without any trouble, but we could not without opening another huge political debate," the Bonn official said. "The likely result is that any freeze would end up being permanent, because any government could not afford to face the consequences."
In London, a close aide to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said she has made it "quite clear that you don't give anything away in advance of negotiations. She wants to get back to the table but a moratorium is exactly what the Russians want because it cements them into superiority."
In Italy, however, the idea of freezing nuclear arsenals on both sides enjoys widespread support.
During a trip to Lisbon in May, after Britain, West Germany and Italy had completed the initial missile deployments, Prime Minister Bettino Craxi suggested that a moratorium would be useful if it could get U.S.-Soviet arms control talks going again.
His remarks provoked a flurry of criticism from the United States and other NATO allies, and since then Craxi has refrained from pushing his initiative within the alliance. But politicians and Foreign Ministry officials said the idea remains popular in Italy.
"There is no question that Italy would go along with any U.S.-Soviet agreement to freeze or even reduce current levels of missiles," said Giorgio La Malfa, president of the Chamber of Deputies foreign affairs commission. "All parties would be in favor of a moratorium."
In Belgium, where 400 American soldiers are preparing to deploy the first batch of 48 cruise missiles this March near Florennes, 50 miles south of Brussels, a mutual freeze is seen as a possible resolution to a political dilemma within the ruling center-right alliance.
With elections due before December 1985, Prime Minister Wilfried Martens' Social Christian Party faces a stiff threat from Flemish Socialists, who have won new support in the polls by opposing the new missiles. As a result, Martens' party has now advocated a delay in deployment, even though the government remains committed to fulfilling the March deadline.
Martens and Foreign Minister Leo Tindemans plan to visit Washington in January to seek a compromise with the Reagan administration, which views the current Belgian government as perhaps the best conceivable ruling coalition in terms of NATO interests.
Jean Gol, the leader of the rightwing Liberals, who are the strongest supporters of deployment in the four-party ruling coalition, said yesterday that a moratorium on new missiles by the superpowers might be the happiest solution to the looming political crisis.
In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers' center-right coalition survived a similar test of survival last June when it decided on a last-minute compromise formula that postponed any decision on the deployment of 48 cruise missiles until Nov. 1, 1985.
On that date, the Dutch government says it will proceed to install the missiles if no arms control pact has been reached and the Soviet arsenal exceeds 378 SS20 missiles.
If the United States and the Soviet Union have worked out a deal, the Netherlands will deploy its share, as called for under the proposed new U.S.-Soviet agreement. But if there is no agreement, and the number of SS20s remains at last June's level of 378, the Dutch will decline the cruises.