Next week's European Union summit in Helsinki, Finland, is expected to lay the groundwork for a European military force that can respond to crises without U.S. help. But defense analysts say that the force may not be operational for years, as governments search for funding and haggle over the force's mission. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports.
Munich, 2 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The German Defense Ministry in Berlin told RFE/RL the Helsinki summit (December 9-10) will discuss a proposal for a European military force of 50,000 soldiers. The ministry said France, Germany, and Britain strongly back the proposal.
The proposed force could be dispatched within 60 days to crisis situations such as Bosnia and Kosovo, and could stay for up to two years. It would be operational by 2003, with additional components to be added in the following years. The German spokesman emphasized that the present plan is only an outline, which will be filled out at next week's EU summit in Helsinki.
Last month, the French defense minister, Alain Richard, suggested that the European Union should also agree to a force of 500 aircraft and 15 naval vessels to support the troops. Britain and Germany have also offered variations on different parts of the plan. Some other governments want a mechanism to allow Turkey and other non-members of the European Union, such as Romania, to join some operations.
Diplomats familiar with the proposal say that, initially, the rapid-reaction force is expected to be based on the embryo European military unit, the Eurocorps, which was founded by France and Germany in 1993. The Eurocorps now also includes units from Belgium, Luxembourg and Spain. In theory, it can call on 60,000 troops for its operations.
Britain's highly experienced troops will also participate. Traditionally, Britain has been cautious of European Union involvement in military matters. But Prime Minister Tony Blair said last week his government is now prepared to offer troops for some operations by the European rapid-reaction force.
Most of the groundwork for the new European force is expected to be done during the next six months, when France is chairman of the European Union. Analysts say this is appropriate because France has for many years pressed for an effective military force that can operate autonomously from NATO and its American command.
The proposals have excited the foreign and defense ministries of Europe. But analysts warn that many problems have to be resolved before the new force becomes operational. Among them is financing the modern weapons and high technology required by a modern army.
U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen has repeatedly urged European countries to spend the money to bring their forces up to par technologically with those of the United States. But that may not be easy to do.
One German expert, who did not wish to be identified, said this: "Without a visible threat to Europe, some parliaments will be reluctant to make extra funds available for defense projects. Budgets are tight these days." The expert continued: "In many European countries, there is a strong body of opinion which believes that any spare money should be used to finance new jobs for the unemployed rather than guns."
Germany may be among those reluctant to spend more money on the military. The government pushed through an austerity program just last week, and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said pointedly that the military could not be excluded.
Another political factor is that the 15 members of the European Union include the neutrals Finland, Sweden, Austria, and Ireland. Under the present rules, they will probably have to give their consent to the creation of the all-European force even if they do not participate themselves.
Some experts believe the neutrals may insist that the European Union lay down specific objectives for the rapid reaction force. These might include peacekeeping operations approved by the United Nations, rescue operations and humanitarian operations. The guidelines might also approve the use of combat forces in crisis management, including peacemaking -- where soldiers use their power to "make" a peace rather than just act as peacekeepers controlling an existing agreement.
All governments supporting the creation of an all-European rapid reaction force insist that they are not trying to undermine NATO, which is made up of most of the same countries plus the United States and Canada. German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping said last week that the supporters of the project recognize that most European countries consider the American-led NATO as the guarantor of peace and security and want that to continue.
The catalyst for the present push for the creation of a European force was this year's Kosovo crisis. It showed Europe how weak it is militarily and how dependent it is on the United States whenever a crisis erupts.
Just the prospect of a European force has prompted some agreements to overcome the deficiencies. Earlier this week, France and Germany unveiled an agreement to cooperate on military telecommunications via satellite.
France has pressed for many years for the creation of a powerful European defense industry to compete with that of the United States. In January 1997, French President Jacques Chirac suggested that governments should adopt a policy of "Europe first" when buying new tanks, aircraft, battle helicopters, and other weapons.
But this may come later. The first objective at next week's European summit will be to lay down the basic groundwork for the creation of a European rapid reaction force and consider how to finance it.