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EU: Common Defense Project Goals Remains Vague

The European Union is less than three years away from its goal of setting up a 60,000 man rapid reaction force that would be capable of peacemaking operations anywhere in the world. Yet, one of the EU's top military officials admits the EU still has little idea of the precise tasks the unit would carry out or how it would relate to NATO. RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports.

Brussels, 31 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Less than three years remains before the EU security and defense project is scheduled to reach its "headline" goal of mustering a rapid-reaction unit of 60,000 men, capable of being assembled within 60 days and deployable for up to a year anywhere in the world.

Yet the project remains very much on paper.

Yesterday, one of the EU's top military officials admitted that it remains unclear whether the EU will in three years' time have the necessary transportation facilities or the weaponry to make the rapid reaction unit work.

Major General Graham Messervy-Whiting, the head of the EU's interim military staff, also appeared to be critical of the "Petersberg tasks" which set guidelines for possible EU military intervention. He said the guidelines -- named after the small German town where they were first adopted in 1992 -- were drawn up without the presence of representatives of the military.

Messervy-Whiting told a group of academics and diplomats in Brussels that "lower-end" tasks such as providing humanitarian relief and rescue operations were relatively uncomplicated. But he says the use of combat forces in crisis management and peacemaking raises the possibility of the EU starting major military operations on its own.

This has so far been the exclusive preserve of NATO, of which most -- but not all -- EU countries are members. He hinted in his comments that the lack of complete overlap could cause problems.

"Certainly, initially, we would see ourselves in no way wanting to compete with NATO. I say initially, because certainly I suspect that the sort of things we might be asked to do -- as the European Union -- and the sort of things where we might be asked for our military expertise in the first few years, would be missions towards the lower end of the Petersberg spectrum, where we wouldn't necessarily have to go through acquiring all the elements of the headline goal capabilities and wait necessarily until 2003."

Messervy-Whiting says these lower-end tasks would be things like disaster relief, evacuation of EU citizens from third countries, and straightforward humanitarian aid -- all things which remain below NATO's threshold.

But as the "headline goal" of a rapid reaction unit of 60,000 men nears completion, and assuming that the EU can provide it with the necessary transport facilities, intelligence gathering equipment and weaponry, then the EU's capabilities increasingly resemble those of NATO's.

Messervy-Whiting acknowledges that a certain kind of rivalry between the EU and NATO then becomes inevitable.

"[Eventually], the European Union should be in a situation to do operations at the higher end of the Petersberg spectrum, which might involve operations of the same sort or type as for example SFOR is doing today in Bosnia. I'm not saying we should do that, but I'm saying we should have a capability to do that kind of stabilization type of operation in that sort of area if we achieve the headline goal in the years to come. And in that sort of domain, there will obviously need to be a critical conversation between the European Union and NATO political authorities as to who takes it on."

An ad hoc working group was established by the EU and NATO last year to look into the relationship between the two organizations, but no accord has been reached as yet.

Should the EU's defense project take wing, its ambitions might be fuelled by the fact that unlike NATO, the EU would not be limited to deploying its forces in a certain area or region. Messervy-Whiting says, for example, that in the future the EU might send its peacekeepers to South America.

The EU has said before this would only be done under the auspices of the UN Security Council.

Some analysts say fears of an EU-NATO rivalry are exaggerated and premature as there is no guarantee the EU's defense effort will come to fruition.

Reacting to Messervy-Whiting's comments, Klaus Becher -- an analyst at the London-based Institute for International Strategic Studies -- says it is not clear that EU member governments have the political will to bring the project to a successful conclusion.

"To really come to a sustained success and change the balance in defense affairs over what was the case in the past in NATO, with the U.S. clearly being in the lead and the Europeans being disappointing allies to the Americans, to really change that, you need sustained political leadership, you need the willingness to raise defense budgets, to adjust the armed forces to the new challenges of technological change, to restructure the armed forces to the new tasks and new roles they play in the future. All this is on the drawing board, but it hasn't been done yet. I think the most decisive element is political leadership -- democratic leaders have to look to elections. Defense doesn't normally get you votes."

Becher says the EU's military projects have failed before and that it remains entirely possible that the project's main sponsors, Britain and France, may yet lose interest in the face of growing political costs.

Becher says if this is the case, Europe might find itself in a security vacuum if the U.S. goes ahead with warnings to downgrade its presence in Europe.