BONN, DEC. 7 -- German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand today proposed to boost the status of the nine-nation Western European Union, turning it into the centerpiece of a common European defense policy.

The two leaders will ask members of the European Community meeting in Rome next week to move ahead not only on the economic and political integration of Europe, but on creating a stronger mechanism for a common defense.

The Western European Union was formed more than four decades ago as a way to coordinate the defense of the West European members of NATO. But the organization was largely inactive for many years.

Both German and U.S. officials were quick to emphasize that the German-French proposal is not designed to distance Europe from the NATO partnership between European and American nations. Rather, they said, it is meant to improve Europe's ability to fulfill the longstanding U.S. goal of enlarging the share of the cost of defense paid by European countries.

"The chancellor has always said that the European Community should not just be an economic association," said a spokesman for Kohl. "After all the historic events of the past two years, the time is perhaps ripe to discuss this.

"NATO remains the decisive alliance for Europe, and Germany wants to remain together with Europe and the United States and Canada on all steps relating to our defense. The United States has long asked Europeans to take on more responsibility for our own defense."

The Kohl-Mitterrand statement said European political unification "should include a common security policy, which would ultimately lead to a common defense."

At the European summit in Rome, the German and French leaders expect to face continued opposition to a quick path to political unity from Britain, despite the departure of the European Community's most reluctant figure, former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.