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EU: Controversy Characterizes Debate On Rapid Reaction Force

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union's planned Rapid Reaction Force is becoming increasingly controversial. Some see the 60,000-strong force, projected to be ready by 2003, as a useful extension of the EU's tasks. Others worry that it risks creating a split in the NATO alliance, mainly between the European allies and the United States. The reaction force's role is meant to be limited to humanitarian tasks, but even this is not clear.

Prague, 28 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The language surrounding the EU's plans for a Rapid Reaction Force is growing steadily more colorful. NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said recently that if the new force would "subvert" NATO he would "denounce" it. U.S. Russian Ambassador to NATO Aleksandr Vershbow referred to a possible "dagger pointed at NATO's heart." The new British chief of defense staff, Admiral Michael Boyce, has expressed concerns about what he calls going off "on some adventure."

Of course, all these comments have to be seen in context. In the same speech in London, Robertson praised the rapid reaction project as a win-win situation for both the EU and NATO -- provided it does not produce rivalry with NATO. Ambassador Vershbow, who was speaking in Brussels, also had some more positive things to say about the force in his remarks. Even the British admiral supported the initiative to the extent that it focuses EU members on the need for improving their defense capabilities, instead of just relying on the United States.

Still, the directness of the language now being employed does indicate that the EU defense project is raising some worries. There has been a perceptible sharpening in tone since the original idea for the reaction force was floated by French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair at a 1998 meeting in Saint Malo, France.

That Blair was one of the initiators may seem surprising, since the British generally oppose granting more power to the EU. Blair has since said his move was designed to head off the possibility of more radical plans being developed by other EU members.

France has its own view of where the new force is going, and it is far less NATO-oriented. In frank comments this week, French armed forces chief General Jean-Pierre Kelche said the force must have its own planning staff, independent of NATO.

Kelche rejected relying on alliance planning, as envisaged by Britain and others, and asked, "Why should we have to go through NATO?" Emphasizing France's desire to press ahead even without NATO, he said it's clear that "by the end of this year, the EU must declare it has an operational capability."

Another complicating factor is that the tasks to be undertaken by the 60,000-strong force have not been clearly defined. For instance, British Admiral Boyce sees the force as limited to small roles such as flood relief. That's one of the so-called "Peterberg tasks," a list of ways the military can help civilians in natural disasters and in peacekeeping.

But London-based military affairs consultant Alexandra Ashbourne cautions that things are not that simple. She tells RFE/RL:

"The big problem is that the scope for European reaction has not been very sharply defined. I mean, these 'Petersberg tasks' range from the most simple humanitarian job, from flood relief -- as the chief of the defense staff said -- to virtual war, and I think those criteria [as applied to the force] need to be sharpened [and made clearer]."

Nevertheless, planning for the new force is proceeding with the latest move -- the appointment this week of Finnish General Gustav Hagglund to head a new EU military coordination committee.

Because Finland is a neutral country and not a NATO member, Hagglund's appointment raises problems of its own. The EU neutrals -- which comprise Austria, Sweden, Ireland, and Finland -- are by definition strongly disinclined to use military force in any given conflict situation. Analyst Ashbourne recalls that in the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo conflict, Austria would not allow alliance aircraft to use its airspace, complicating combat missions. She says:

"The whole question of neutrality is one that is going certainly to be of major interest in the next few years, because for the European Rapid Reaction Force to succeed, it cannot allow itself to be held hostage by neutral countries. The danger is that we might see what could be called the lowest-common-denominator response, meaning the one to which even all the neutrals could agree, which might be rather ineffective."

Ironically, the fledgling reaction force -- due to ready to deploy in 2003 -- will almost certainly remain dependent, through NATO, on U.S. technical and logistical capabilities for some time after its formation. That's because the Europeans lack the essential tools themselves. Ashbourne told our correspondent:

"Europe is still so reliant on American capabilities, and American infrastructure. I mean, Europe still does not have the transport aircraft -- they have pledged to buy the transport aircraft that they need, but they still do not have them. Europe still does not have the intelligence and satellite capabilities that are really needed for an effective rapid reaction capability. Europe still does not have an air-to-air refueling system."

Ashbourne says the EU members are generally moving to acquire the necessary equipment, but that will take time.

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