Brussels, 14 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- European Union officials have spent much of the first day of the EU's two-day Laeken summit trying to defuse controversy over future defense policy.
Early this afternoon, emerging fresh from the first round of talks, Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel told reporters that the leaders had been unable to persuade Greece to endorse an earlier deal with Turkey allowing future EU forces access to vital NATO assets.
Turkey -- a member of NATO but not of the EU -- wanted a guarantee that the force would not be used in disputes with arch-rival Greece or for divided Cyprus. Although details of the EU-Turkey deal have been kept secret, it is widely assumed to involve concessions on guarantees.
EU diplomats say Greece is now blocking the EU-Turkey deal, asking for counter-guarantees. Leading among these is a demand to deny Turkey a veto over the intervention of the EU defense force in a hypothetical Greek-Turkish confrontation.
Greece is also said to be demanding that Cyprus -- once it joins the EU -- be accorded full participation rights in the defense force.
Michel -- who currently speaks for the agenda-setting EU presidency -- said that regardless of the difficulties, the EU will declare its defense project "partially operational" as of 1 January.
He was supported by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who said the "operationality" of the EU's defense forces is a separate issue from EU access to NATO assets.
Michel courted greater controversy when he suggested the entire 15-nation EU will participate in an Afghan peacekeeping operation, currently being discussed in the United Nations Security Council. Michel said the "multilateral" EU force will be made up of 3,000 to 4,000 men and will very probably be under British command.
Michel said all EU countries will be involved in the operation, calling this a "new departure" and saying the EU will set an "important precedent" in seizing the opportunity to develop its defense capabilities.
Solana appeared to support Michel's comments today at a news conference: "As you know, the UN is going to take a decision in the coming hours, in the coming days. That decision will imply several things. One of them, the deployment of a security force. That security force will be led, probably, very likely, by a European country, and very likely the United Kingdom. And the rest of the countries of the European Union are ready to participate in that multinational force."
Solana continued: "The multinational force will be -- a leading country will be the United Kingdom -- but all the rest of the European countries have shown their interest in participation also with them. Therefore it will be, basically, a European Union force led by one country of the European Union."
Michel's statement on the EU-Afghan peacekeeping force ran into immediate criticism from other EU leaders. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told reporters the EU is not ready to handle defense operations, adding that the United Nations will have overall control over assembling the force.
Neutral Sweden's Foreign Minister Anna Lindh said the suggestion must have been a misunderstanding, as the EU has no operational defense force yet. She also said the Afghan force will remain a UN responsibility, saying that British officials -- who are putatively in control of the operation -- had indicated to her earlier that they would not like to see too many countries involved initially, to avoid "complicating" matters.
As EU leaders met in Brussels, officials from countries interested in contributing troops to the peacekeeping force in Afghanistan -- the United States, Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Turkey, Jordan, and Poland, among others -- met in London today.
An EU official -- who did not want to be named -- said Michel's statement had been a political one to demonstrate that the EU does intend to have the capability to mount its own operations. The official went on to say, however, that the EU intends to "put practice before theory." In other words, the official explained, European Union countries sending troops to Afghanistan will have a good opportunity to practice joint operations.
The official also suggested that the EU will, before long, assume a policing role in Bosnia after the current Dayton arrangements expire.