Brussels, 12 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's foreign and security policy coordinator, Javier Solana, indicated today that the EU's fledgling defense project would go ahead even if Turkey continues to block EU access to vital NATO assets.
Turkey -- a member of NATO and a candidate for EU membership -- has said it would block EU access to NATO assets if it is not given a full say in future EU military operations. Turkey says it is particularly worried about operations in neighboring regions that could affect its security interests.
The EU has refused the demand, instead offering Turkey guarantees of "extensive consultations" before embarking on action close to Turkey's borders. Ankara has not accepted the offer. Turkey's refusal could jeopardize EU plans to have a rapid reaction force of 60,000 men ready for action by early 2003.
After the EU defense ministers' meeting in Brussels today, Belgium's Defense Minister Andre Flahaut -- speaking on behalf of the EU's current rotating presidency -- said relations between the EU and NATO had "never been as good as now." However, Flahaut appeared to confirm many observers' belief that Turkey's stance has hardened since the 11 September attacks on the United States. He said that the problem with Turkey "had still to be looked at."
In remarks to reporters today, Solana said the EU was still trying to reach an agreement with Turkey and NATO, but warned that the bloc was prepared to go it alone.
"Every day something happens [that] goes in [a] positive direction. It still is not finished but I hope it will be finished. But in any case, [agreement with Turkey] is not a condition absolutely necessary, but we would like to do it [in] agreement with NATO; for that we need an agreement with Turkey. I have not lost hope that it [can] be done."
Solana confirmed that the 11 September attacks had increased the EU's resolve to hasten the creation of its rapid reaction force. He was unwilling to say, however, whether units of the force would be available for minor missions by December, when EU leaders meet for their Laeken summit. Belgium has hinted that this is a real possibility.
Neither Solana nor Belgian Defense Minister Flahaut could say whether EU governments are ready to increase defense spending to address shortcomings. The EU still lacks the necessary strategic transport capabilities, command-and-control systems, and intelligence-gathering and processing resources. The costs would rise significantly if Turkey's veto on EU access to NATO assets forces the EU to duplicate them.
Flahaut said that the next meeting of the defense ministers would examine these issues. Although the Belgian minister stressed that the 11 September attacks had demonstrated the need for an adequate European defense, he seemed to foreclose immediate spending increases, saying that EU governments would in the first instance need to make "more intelligent" use of available budgets.