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EU: Rapid Reaction Force Set For Macedonia, But First Must Make Peace With Greece

The European Union's Rapid Reaction Force is set to make its first-ever deployment. Until now, the force has existed only on paper, but from September it is planning to take over peacekeeping duties in Macedonia from NATO troops. The EU's foreign policy and security chief, Javier Solana, says that depends, however, on solving a long-running dispute over the new force's access to NATO military planning facilities. Greece is blocking an agreement between the EU and Turkey under which Turkey would allow the new force access to the planning facilities in return for a limited say on how the force is deployed.

Prague, 27 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union will be racing against time to fulfill its intention of taking over peacekeeping duties in Macedonia from NATO by September.

EU officials say the new Rapid Reaction Force will assume peacekeeping responsibilities in the former Yugoslav republic on 27 September, presuming the Macedonian government agrees to the move.

This will be the first deployment of the Rapid Reaction Force, which has until now existed only on paper. However, the plan carries a major risk with it -- namely, that a long-running dispute between rival NATO members Greece and Turkey will not be resolved in time.

Greece, an EU member state, is objecting to a previous agreement between the EU and Turkey under which Turkey would allow the new force access to NATO military planning facilities in return for a limited say on how the force is deployed. Greece says Turkey, which is not an EU member, should not have any influence in the matter.

A source close to the EU's military committee told RFE/RL that use of the Rapid Reaction Force is based on the supposition that it will be able to use NATO military planning assets, since it has no planning capability of its own.

The source said no concrete military preparations are under way for the deployment as yet, pending a resolution of the dispute. He said time is pressing if the deployment is to go ahead on schedule.

Failure to carry out the Macedonia mission would be a major setback for the EU, according to London-based security analyst Daniel Keohane of the Centre for European Reform: "It's the first military test of the EU's defense policy. And obviously, the EU is intending [in future] to take over the policing part of the Bosnian mission, as well. But the fact that the Rapid Reaction Force is intended to be deployed in Macedonia is a major early test of the EU's new defense capability, and it would be a major embarrassment if something went wrong."

The EUs' foreign policy and security chief, Javier Solana, has intensified efforts to resolve the dispute. His spokeswoman, Christina Gallach, speaking from the Arab League summit in Beirut, said: "There has been work already at the diplomatic level, and then some work at the political level. Mr. Solana had a working dinner last Monday night (25 March) with the foreign minister of Turkey [Ismail Cem], and more work is going to be done very soon with other leaders."

Solana has said the Macedonia mission cannot go ahead without NATO planning assets being available. But analyst Keohane points out that there are alternatives: "What the EU could do, for example -- in theory at least -- it could use a national headquarters instead of using NATO assets, instead of using SHAPE [NATO's Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe] to run the mission. [It could use,] for example, the French or the British national headquarters, or it could even use something like Eurocorps regional headquarters to run the mission. But naturally, it would be preferable to use NATO headquarters for everyone concerned."

The analyst notes that that's because NATO has by far the most experience with peacekeeping. In addition, most of the countries involved in, or likely to be involved in, the peacekeeping mission are NATO members themselves, or are at least accustomed to NATO standards and the way NATO runs operations.

The Turks, for their part, seem content for the EU to run the Macedonian peacekeeping force, even if the ongoing dispute with Athens has prevented them from being drawn formally into the consultation process.

Mehmet Poroy, a counselor with the Turkish mission to NATO, says: "We don't have any objection, at this stage. That is what I can say. I mean, the most important thing for us is to have a most effective operation there [in Macedonia], so if it will be an EU operation, [that's all right]."

Greece has said it is an enthusiastic supporter of using the Rapid Reaction Force in Macedonia. But at the same time, Greek Defense Minister Yannos Papantoniu says Athens can give no assurances on whether the dispute will be resolved in time for that mission to take place.