The heads of four EU member states -- France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg -- meet today in Brussels for a "mini-summit" on defense cooperation. All four countries opposed the war in Iraq, and the timing of the summit is highly symbolic. Although no particular breakthroughs are expected, the summit highlights Europe's unease over U.S. military dominance in the world.
Brussels, 29 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Today's "mini-summit" on defense in Brussels is a predominantly symbolic event. No one expects the four countries to launch a serious challenge to the military might of the United States, which spends more on defense than its principal NATO allies and largest would-be competitors like Russia and China combined.
However, the summit highlights growing concern in the European Union that unchecked U.S. dominance in global affairs is beginning to hurt the bloc's own security interests.
This is a diagnosis tacitly shared by most supporters of U.S. policy in the EU. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, interviewed yesterday in Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," was highly skeptical of today's meeting, warning it could weaken NATO and trans-Atlantic ties. But he also noted that the United States would not "listen" to a weak, unassertive EU.
Speaking for the EU's next presidency (July-December), Frattini also offered no ideas on how to advance the bloc's cause, apart from saying a new "strategic dialogue" with Washington is necessary.
Significantly, the EU's central institutions have refrained from condemning today's event. The bloc's security-policy coordinator, Javier Solana, told Reuters in an interview yesterday that if the four countries meeting in Brussels agree to spend more on defense, "that would be good news for the whole European Union." All four now spend less than the NATO average.
Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, has said he supports the initiative as long as it remains open to others. His spokesman, Reijo Kemppinen, yesterday told reporters that Prodi does not think the summit is meant as an outright challenge to the United States.
"[Prodi] does not think that strengthening European policy in matters of common defense and security [is] in any way [meant to rival] the power of the United States. What he feels as regards NATO is that we should strengthen NATO, and the best way to strengthen NATO is to strengthen the European component within NATO, and that is also in the best interests of the United States," Kemppinen said.
However, the summit is clearly a private event. Neither Solana or Prodi, nor representatives of the EU's current Greek Presidency, will participate.
Participants themselves reject accusations of any divisive intent. French President Jacques Chirac issued a statement yesterday saying the strengthening of European defense "will also strengthen the Atlantic alliance."
Proposals so far include a Belgian initiative to set up European military headquarters separate from NATO, common spending targets, and moves to set up joint military units.
France and Germany -- keen in recent weeks to improve relations with the United States -- are likely to postpone decisions on most of these issues, although they could support the creation of a common arms-procurement agency, which would also promote research and development cooperation.
The meeting could also play an important role within the context of the ongoing debate of reforming the EU's institutions after enlargement. A draft constitution being debated in the Convention on the Future of Europe sets out the possibility of mutual defense commitments for all EU members.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who heads Europe's leading military power and who is a close ally of the United States, yesterday criticized the initiative. He said he would not accept "anything that either undermines NATO or conflicts with the basic principles of European defense we've set out." He warned of Cold War-style divisions if the EU turns away from a "partnership" with the United States.
At the same time, Britain supports the view that the EU needs to increase its military spending. It is also known to be supportive of the French-German idea of creating a centralized EU arms agency -- something not favored by Washington, which tries to fend off competition to U.S. weapons industries.
Although the precise intentions of the four countries meeting today remain unclear, it is worth noting that French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said in Moscow last week that Russia should be "associated with the planning work that we are carrying out."
Few observers in Brussels believe the defense summit will have immediate tangible results. Nevertheless, many of them share the assessment that the United States is actively seeking to sideline the EU in world politics and oppose the further integration of the bloc's foreign and security policies.
Some analysts describe today's meeting as the EU's equivalent of a "coalition of the willing" eager to move on with political integration. It is worth noting that similar minority-sponsored attempts at integration have succeeded before. Most notably, the bloc's visa-free Schengen system first came into being outside the framework of the EU's common institutions.