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EU: Summit Overshadowed By Differences Over Defense Policy

The European Union today wrapped up its two-day autumn summit in Brussels. Although most of the agenda of the meeting of the 15 current and 10 future member states was dedicated to the bloc's future constitution and its ailing economy, much of the debate was overshadowed by differences over defense issues and the role NATO -- and more specifically, the United States -- should play in European defense.

Brussels, 17 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- At their autumn summit in Brussels, European Union leaders appeared unable to bridge the divide over the future of European defense.

Tony Blair, the British prime minister, today tried to dispel speculation that Britain could agree on plans for an autonomous EU defense force being drawn up by France and Germany. Speaking after the summit, Blair restated his support for the primacy of NATO -- and the United States -- in the European security architecture.

"I will never put at risk NATO, and I think in the last year, it would be impossible to accuse me of being anything other than a staunch ally and friend of the United States. But I believe that Britain has to be strong in Europe and strong with America, and there are people who want to pull me away from Europe and people who want to pull me away from America. The position, under my prime ministership, will be that we remain strong with both," Blair said.

Blair was keen to stress that this fundamental view -- that NATO will remain the fundamental linchpin for security in Europe -- is not contested by anyone. "When Britain speaks out for the NATO alliance, we get the support of the vast majority of people, including I have to say, France and Germany, who recognize that, in the end, European defense has no future as a competitor to NATO," he said. "It can only work if it is fully compatible with NATO."

Nevertheless, diplomats and observers alike spoke of tangible "tensions" at last night's summit dinner when defense issues were broached.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, said today that an EU defense force of some kind is a necessity. "There has been an absolute unanimity on the necessity to endow the European Union with an appropriate policy of defense and security," he said. "There is no possibility that the European Union can play a role on the world's stage without the support of an appropriate military force. History teaches that no policy or diplomacy can exist without the support of a corresponding military force."

What appears to be causing the tension within the EU about a defense force is not so much any immediate plans to scupper NATO as the possible implications of the "structured" defense cooperation advocated by Germany, France, and Belgium.

One EU diplomat told RFE/RL that "structured cooperation" in defense is being thought of as potentially similar to the way the euro was launched. It would be based on criteria agreed to by all 25 member states and would be open to everyone as long as they wanted to join and meet the criteria. The criteria are yet to be specified. This view, the diplomat said, is supported by the bloc's foreign policy and security chief, Javier Solana.

Observers suggest that while Britain has in principle agreed to an autonomous EU military planning capability, it -- like most other EU member states -- is worried about the possibility that rivalry with NATO cannot be avoided in the long term.

Similar fears were shared last night by some of the EU's neutral countries, who said the bloc's shared decision-making bodies must retain full political control over future defense plans.

French President Jacques Chirac today adopted a conciliatory tone, saying future EU defense cooperation should be open to all. "We wish for a structured cooperation that allows us to create a European defense which, on the one hand is totally open to everybody, of course, and which, on the other hand, is fully coherent with our commitments toward NATO," he said.

However, echoing Berlusconi's comments, he said there is "not going to be a Europe without a defense dimension." Chirac said he had asked Blair to explain Britain's reluctance to beef up the existing rudimentary European planning capabilities, adding that discussions on this will continue.

To clear the air and possibly assuage mounting U.S. concerns, the EU's Italian presidency has invited U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to meet the 25 EU foreign ministers in Brussels on 18 November.