I served a mission in Germany from 1999-2001. My mission was one of six German missions; there was another one in Austria and possibly one in the Swiss-speaking part of Switzerland.
The number of missions there started to drop almost immediately after I returned home. In 2001, the mission just north of us closed, sending half their missionaries to us and half to Hamburg.
Now, where there were seven or eight missions, there are just three. Frankfurt (my mission), Berlin, and a mission encompassing parts of Switzerland, parts of southern Germany, and all of Austria.
I'm not sure of other numbers in Western Europe, but I believe there has been a tremendous drop in the number of missionaries throughout Great Britain and Scandinavia as well as France, Germany, and other smaller neighboring countries.
Part of this probably has to do with the fact that lots of missionaries were getting sent to Europe without a lot of results. I served in small branches with five other missionaries and very little success; I also served in decent-sized wards with eight missionaries and lots of baptisms. But success, as far as numbers went, was the exception rather than the rule, and six missionaries in a tiny branch was just overkill.
So I don't disagree with the movement to close down many of these missions.
However, I think the movement will have some unforeseen consequences.
I've noticed that a large percentage of my more liberal LDS friends served missions in Europe. Germany, France, Scandinavia. For example, all of my LDS friends who "like" Obama on Facebook have either spent significant time in Western Europe or are married to someone who did. And thinking of my friends who served in Europe (with the exception of Italy), I believe all of them are either liberal or, in one or two cases, moderate. (Interestingly enough, the two who served in Italy and have made their political views know to me are severely conservative).
Sure, I had a lot of missionary companions who were quite
conservative. I'm not arguing that everyone that serves in Europe comes
back liberal. But I do notice a pattern, especially among my friends.
Is this a coincidence? Or are they chosen to go to Europe because they are already a bit more liberal and so would fit in better there?
Or, more likely, did their experience in seeing how another technologically advanced society successfully addressed poverty, and then seeing poverty here in the U.S., lead them to believe that there is, indeed, a better way?
I returned from my mission a conservative. Sure, I was pro-science and pro-environment, but I also didn't do a whole lot of thinking about politics. When the Iraq war was starting up I was uneasy about it but after Colin Powell told us there were weapons of mass destruction there, I told myself that it was okay if we fought there because they'd broken their treaty with us. I was a hesitant supporter, but a supporter anyway, at least until the truth came out.
But a Bioethics course at BYU, where I discussed ethical issues with other students, many of them pre-meds and pre-dentals, ultimately changed my way of thinking. I went into that class already thinking differently than most of those conservative students, and I came out realizing that my different views on ethics probably meant I had different views on politics as well. My life experiences--including my time in Germany--gave me different perspectives, even if I didn't realize until several years later how that impacted my politics.
I'm afraid with the closing down of European missions that fewer and fewer members of the church will get to experience Europe, and having not experienced Europe, will continue to mistakenly believe that the U.S. does everything better than everyone else. I don't know what the demographics will look like in the future--if the number of liberal church members will decrease or increase--but I'm fairly certain that the decrease in the number of LDS missions and missionaries in Western Europe will have a negative effect on the number of liberals in the church.