Prague, 22 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair has taken an important initiative that may succeed in injecting some life into this weekend's European Union summit meeting in Austria. Until now, the so-called informal summit had seemed to lack any important substantive agenda.
Yesterday, in an interview with the London "Times" and several other West European newspapers, Blair said that his Labour government was ready to take the lead in the creation of an EU defense force. Under proposals he will put to the Union's 14 other heads of state and government, Blair said he will suggest that troops from all EU member states cooperate in a peacekeeping and, if necessary, combat role in crises such at those in the former Yugoslavia.
Blair stressed, however, that he did not want a standing army to be run from EU headquarters in Brussels. Rather, he said, he favored an approach that would allow members to work under the authority of NATO --whose primacy he described as "paramount"-- but without necessarily the involvement of the U.S.
Nevertheless, Blair's advocacy of what he called "fresh thinking" about how the EU could back up still unrealized common foreign and defense policies represents a major shift for London. Under the previous Conservative government, Britain twice vetoed Franco-German proposals for a joint EU defense force in negotiations leading up to the Union's Maastricht (1992) and Amsterdam (1997) treaties.
Analysts today said that the timing of Blair's proposal was probably intended to take advantage of the recent election of Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder as Germany's new chancellor. During his campaign, Schroeder indicated he considered deepening relations with Britain as important as maintaining Germany's long-time close friendship with France.
Blair's proposals were generally welcomed by French officials. Socialist Jack Lang, head of the National Assembly's Foreign Affairs Committee, said that "It was time for (the EU) to act like a responsible power on its own by creating its own security identity." But some French diplomats worried that Blair's views still clearly diverge from Paris' strong desire to see the West European Union, a long-moribund defense group, become an integral part of the EU. That position was reiterated last month by both French President Jacques Chirac and Premier Lionel Jospin .
In any case, Blair has made it likely that the EU summit at the Austrian lakeside resort town of Poertschach will now be more than a talk festival. The original idea for the meeting came from outgoing German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Chirac. They suggested it earlier this year as a forum for discussing how the EU could bring itself closer to the people of its member states. Also, at the outset of the German election campaign, Kohl especially wanted to demonstrate to his electorate that he was serious about cutting back the powers of EU institutions and reducing Germany's net contribution to the Union's coffers, the largest of any member state.
That left it to the Chancellor of Austria, currently EU President, to work out a suitable agenda for Poertschach. It hasn't been an easy task for Victor Klima, who has spent much of the past few months touring EU capitals collecting the opinions of his colleagues on far from momentous issues. Among other things, Klima solicited views on how precisely to define "subsidiarity" --an EU jargon term for dealing with issues at the lowest possible level-- on the role of a possible ombudsman (independent liaison with individuals) for the Union and even on a proposal to increase the group's number of informal summits.
The meeting was scheduled for this weekend in order to allow whoever won the German election to attend. But Schroeder, who will not be officially installed as chancellor until Tuesday (Oct. 27), will make only a guest appearance at Poertschach. Italy's new Prime Minister, former Communist Massimo D'Alema, was sworn in yesterday and therefore will attend. Thirteen of the EU's 15 members are currently run or controlled by Left-of-Center governments.
In an editorial last week (Oct. 16), well before Blair's initiative, Britain's pro-EU "Financial Times" daily warned that the Poertschach meeting could turn into what it called "a sorry summit" and suggested the best solution might be to cancel it. The paper said that EU leaders could "make a laughing stock of themselves and of the Union if they persist in their present (non-substantive) agenda." That still seems a danger for Poertschach, even though Blair has clearly succeeded in putting a serious security issue before his colleagues.