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Norway's premier sees new role for Europe

The first woman to head a modern Scandinavian government sits squarely behind her desk, elbows on the blotter, and compares Norway, along with the other NATO countries in Europe, to a child growing up.

This means that the United States, cast here in the parent role, can expect to hear stronger, more independent, voices in Europe on the issue of security.

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"Europe wants a greater say in NATO," Gro Harlem Brundtland says with the forthrightness she is noted for.

Her view, from the northern keystone country of the Western defense system, reflects the debate elsewhere in Europe as Ronald Reagan's White House works to set the tone of its NATO partnerships.

The popular Mrs. Brundtland, prime minister of Norway since Feb. 4, has some six months to make her leadership felt in her Labor Party.

A member of Labor Party organizations since she was quite young Mrs. Brundtland was minister of the environment in the mid-1970s. her office is in the social democratic style, well organized and without pomp or grandeur, but with a bouquet of flowers on her desk.

She is considered here to be Labor's last, best hope of rebuilding its popular base befoe elections next September. And since the major question hanging over the Norwegian economy is whether Norwegians can resist the temptation to spend the North Sea oil money that is drowning their traditional industries in inflation, the prime minister has planed her party's hopes for the elections on economic issues.

Opinion polls show Labor's fortunes rising since she took office. "This woman is a votegetter," remarks Prof. Henry Valen, a prominent commentator on Norwegian politics at the University of Oslo. "You can feel the change in opinion, the optimism, around here. You can see it in the socialist newspapers."

In person she portrays the decisive clarity her party needs desperately to project. A mother of four, her husband a leading conservative expert on foreign policy, Mrs. Brundtland is firmly pro-NATO.

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But NATO relationships are changing, she says. The upshot may be fewer one-sided NATO decisions by the United States, and more mutual decisionmaking among alliance partners.

A growing European neutrality? No, she insists. Independence is not to be confused with backing off from commitment to the NATO alliance. "And I've been misunderstood previously on this point," she cautions.

But the problem remains: "European countries sometimes feel dragged into the greater role of the US as a superpower."

She points to El Salvador as an example where Europeans are uneasy with American action that they can't support.

A greater role means a greater responsibility. Mrs. Brundtland perceives a growing fear recently among Norwegians of nuclear war. Others here share her perception. An Oslo newspaper even ran a front-page illustration recently of what the city would look like after a nuclear attact.

This fear, Mrs. Brundtland feels, comes with a new sense of responsibility among Norwegians for making decisions on nuclear weapons. It began with the 1979 NATO agreement on the neutron bomb.

"It was the first time we had been asked by the US to take part in a decision on nuclear arms," she explains. It sparked debate among European people over decisions that had been thrust on them in the past. "It's a very difficult debate to have." And one that is complicating European politics.

Looking west across the Atlantic, people throughout northern Europe welcome the clear focus of the new American leadership in foreign policy.

But Mrs. Brundtland echoes other observers, especially on the left, in voicing her dismay over some of the strong talk coming from Washington.

She notes that the Reagan administration has made some "rather brutal comments" to the effect that Europe could refuse to boost its defense budgets and the United States really wouldn't care.

Brave talk, but unrealistic, says Brundtland. The US can no more afford to go its own way in the world power balance than Europe. "This is why it makes me smile a little, you can make those tough statements, but they're a long way from reality."

These issues have stirred debate in Norway on two matters so far this year. One was the formal decision by the Storting (parliament) in January to stockpile equipment for American Marines in central Norway. The other is the recurring proposal carried forward by Mrs. Brundtland, for a nuclear weapon-free zone in Scandinavia.

The nuclear ban idea, however, is linked to Soviet disarmament of nuclear weapons in the strategic Kola Peninsula, which many Norwegians think renders the proposal utterly unrealistic -- a bone thrown to the Norwegian left.

Mrs. Brundtland sees it as a contribution to the effort to get nuclear weapons off the European continent.

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