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Europe: France And Germany Propose Closer EU Defense Cooperation

Munich, 24 March 1997 (RFE/RL)-- Germany and France are again trying to push the European Union into closer cooperation on European defense policy, despite hostility from Britain and reluctance from several other countries, particularly the neutral states..

The German foreign ministry says the latest initiative will probably be unveiled tomorrow at ceremonies in Rome marking the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, which was the first step towards the present European Union. EU foreign ministers are likely to use the occasion to continue discussions on unity, including that of foreign and defense policies.

The Bonn foreign ministry did not discuss details of the latest Franco-German initiative but said it improved on previous unsuccessful similar efforts. It proposes that the European Union develop its own defense arm through an organization called the West European Union (WEU). The WEU has existed for many years but has never been really effective.

The Bonn spokesman said the WEU is not envisaged as a rival to the American-dominated NATO but as a parallel development based in Europe. At present WEU has no forces of its own and relies on NATO for troops and equipment for operations, even if they are carried-out in the name of the WEU.

The latest Franco-German plan calls for three phases of development. In the first, the EU would call on the WEU for international missions, such as peacekeeping. Members of the EU would be expected to contribute forces to WEU missions. This would also be expected of Central and East European countries which join the EU early next century.

In the second phase, the WEU would be more fully integrated into the European Union. The European Council of Ministers would take responsibility for setting the WEU guidelines and defining its policy instead of individual member-governments making their own decisions. The third stage envisages complete integration into EU.

According to the foreign ministry, the Franco-German initiative is supported by Belgium, Spain and Italy, which already have close military ties, but is opposed by Britain while several other countries are reluctant. The Bonn foreign ministry confirmed that Britain had threatened to veto the proposal but added: "we will wait and see what really happens."

Britain argues that the proposal is unnecessary because most European countries are already members of NATO, which is equipped to carry out international operations, including peacekeeping ones. It also says the proposal is impractical because not all members of the European Union are members of the WEU.

The exceptions are the four neutral countries -- Austria, Finland, Sweden and Ireland. Sweden has recently made plain that neutrality remains a fundamental principle of domestic politics, although some aspects of it were modified to allow it to enter the European Union. Austria also entered the EU only after receiving assurances that some core issues in its neutrality policy would not be affected. Recent statements from some Finnish politicians indicate that there is still strong support for neutrality there, if only to pacify Russia.

Diplomats said that the real decisions on the latest Franco-German plan are to be taken in negotiations with individual capitals. France and Germany hope that a commitment to integrate the WEU with the European Union can be obtained at the EU summit meeting in Amsterdam in June. France and Germany also hope that if a new British government emerges at the upcoming elections, it will be less hostile to the idea than the current government led by John Major.

The diplomats also pointed out that this is only one of a number of Franco-German initiatives aimed at the long-term goal of creating a common foreign and defense policy in Europe. The two countries created the so-called Eurocorps, a 50,000-man multi-national unit which now includes troops not only from France and Germany but also from Belgium, Spain and Luxembourg.

French spokesmen have touted the corps as the kernel of a future all-European army. Technically the Eurocorps has been operational for about a year but in practice its activities have been limited.

In another move, it was disclosed in January this year that France and Germany have tentative plans to create a powerful European defense industry as part of a common strategic concept for Europe. France, in particular, believes European countries should adopt a policy of "Europe first" when buying new tanks and other weapons. At present NATO relies largely on American weaponry.