A year ago, when leaders of the European Union announced plans to create an EU Rapid Reaction Force, the idea was welcomed on both sides of the Atlantic. The United States had long complained that NATO's European members were not contributing their fair share to military and peacekeeping operations. But since then, Washington has become increasingly worried that attempts to set up a EU defense force could split the alliance. Yesterday's declaration by French President Jacques Chirac that the force should have command structures independent of NATO has undoubtedly increased U.S. concerns. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten examines the issues.
Prague, 8 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The latest skirmish in the trans-Atlantic war of words began on Tuesday (Dec 5) in Brussels. On his farewell tour of Europe, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen warned a NATO defense ministers' meeting that the alliance could become what he called "a relic" if the European Union's plans for a 60,000-strong Rapid Reaction Force are not firmly linked to the alliance.
In comments to reporters afterwards, Cohen said Washington supports the EU's goal of boosting its defenses. But he stressed that this must be done within NATO.
"I simply wanted to raise a warning flag that -- while we see the need to create, and we strongly support the creation of this capability (EU force) -- it should not come to be in competition or in conflict with NATO capabilities and with the NATO institution itself."
EU Foreign and Security Policy chief Javier Solana quickly played down U.S. fears that the creation of a European defense force might weaken NATO. In fact, EU politicians have been at pains in recent weeks to reinforce that message. German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping said last month that the EU "must not allow the slightest breath of suspicion to arise" that the establishment of it defense force means any kind of break with NATO.
But yesterday (Thursday), French President Jacques Chirac appeared to do just the opposite. Taking center-stage as host of the EU's semi-annual summit in Nice, Chirac told a press briefing that the 15-nation groups' defense force should have its own command structure -- separate from the alliance.
"This European defense must naturally be coordinated with the alliance. But in the way it is assembled and deployed it must be independent from SHAPE (NATO's Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe.) Coordinated, but independent. That is the best way to reinforce the Atlantic alliance as a whole."
So far, there has been no official U.S. reaction to Chirac's remarks. But among EU members, the French president's declaration upset the British most of all. The idea of establishing a European rapid reaction force initially emerged from an Anglo-French summit in the French port of St. Malo two years ago. British Prime Minister Tony Blair considers himself to be a co-sponsor of the initiative, and had planned to use the Nice summit to reassure both U.S. and British skeptics that the EU defense force would not amount to a separate European army. Clearly feeling upset and upstaged, Blair told reporters that Chirac's ideas were not acceptable to Britain.
At Blair's insistence today (Friday), EU leaders curtailed a planned statement on the defense force, omitting several paragraphs which a British spokesman called "unnecessarily detailed." Pierre Moscovici, France's minister for European affairs, said Paris had agreed to the move in order to avoid what he termed a "counterproductive quarrel." For now, the precise degree of coordination or autonomy between the future European force and NATO has yet to be defined.
Timothy Garden, a European defense-policy expert and former director of the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, says political disagreements between the U.S. and the EU should not be accorded too much weight. Garden told our correspondent that arguments over command structures are premature and will only become important when the force actually exists, projected for sometime in 2003. Garden says Chirac's statement amounts to jockeying for position, to ensure that the EU retains some command authority for operations that involve only its forces.
"The detailed planning arrangements, I think, are being blown up out of all proportion. This force doesn't exist yet. All that's happened is that EU nations have done their pledging. It's got to be brought together. And the particular level of command and control arrangements, I think, are going to be something that is worked out over a period of time. It sounds to me as though President Chirac wants to leave open the thought that there may be occasions when the EU has to do something on its own."
Chirac has a history of presenting bold initiatives that sometimes catch other EU members by surprise. Those initiatives often go beyond the careful EU consensus and partly serve to safeguard France's position as a policy innovator. Earlier this year, the French president put forward the idea of creating a so-called "pioneer group" of closely integrated EU members, governed by a what he called a new "European constitution." Some EU members objected to the idea of a two-speed Europe, but Chirac's place as a man of innovative ideas was guaranteed.
Garden says there are likely to be few operations run exclusively by EU countries in the future. Most missions will have to rely on NATO's infrastructure and for that reason, he says, a high degree of coordination is inevitable. This is already evident in the administrative staffing plans for the future EU force.
"A lot of the people are 'double-hatted' -- people are both NATO military officers and EU military officers. So, while this may cause a political degree of difficulty at the moment, I think the reality is that NATO and the EU will be intimately involved in security operations that are using the same forces, with the same people running them."
Writing in the Washington Post earlier this year, NATO's former supreme allied commander in Europe, General Wesley Clark, noted that "American actions and attitudes contributed significantly to pushing the Europeans toward their goal of an autonomous military capability." He added that especially during the Kosovo conflict, the U.S. "allowed the Europeans to believe that in future security crises in Europe, we might not be there to help."
Now, it appears, the United States is being accorded the same kind of treatment by the EU -- or, at least, by Chirac. Viewed from this perspective, the French leader's remarks can be seen as an artful response to Washington's failure to assuage its allies' feelings. Whether this political exchange leads to real division or prompts a reconciliation of differences depends on both sides' ability not to misinterpret political rhetoric.