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NATO: U.S. Ambassador Burns Denies Tensions Over EU

At a recent conference on NATO and the Middle East held in Prague, delegates addressed new challenges facing NATO, including that of plans for a stronger defense policy within the European Union. While the U.S. expressed concerns over the possibility of greater cooperation within the E.U undermining NATO, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicolas Burns denied any growing tention between the U.S. and E.U. From Prague, RFE/RL reporter Katheen Knox reports.

Prague, 20 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. ambassador to NATO has denied reports of emerging tensions between the U.S. and Britain over plans for a European Union defense policy.

Speaking yesterday at a Prague conference on NATO, Nicholas Burns described as "wrong" recent press reports that the U.S. is worried about Britain's decision to cooperate more closely with its EU allies on defense.

"The United Kingdom is the closest ally of the United States and we have a perfect understanding of each other and we're working closely together and there are no problems between the U.S. and the U.K. on this issue. It's our closest ally," Burns said.

But he reiterated U.S. concerns about the project and said EU-NATO relations are currently unsatisfactory.

"This is now the crucial issue in NATO-EU relations that we've got to work through. We have a meeting on it tomorrow in Brussels and we'll continue to discuss it for months on end," Burns said. "I would boil it down to this -- if we can guarantee cooperation between NATO and the EU and if that's going to be the spirit and fact of our relationship, we'll be fine. But if some members of the EU want to turn this into a competitive relationship, we'll have great disagreement."

The U.S. says it is worried that the evolving European defense policy -- in particular the idea of setting up a separate EU military headquarters -- could undermine NATO.

The plans have so far been drawn up by a core group of four European countries including France and Germany. They propose much closer defense cooperation among each other outside of NATO. Britain, which long opposed the idea, recently softened its position, though Prime Minister Tony Blair stressed last week that NATO remains the preeminent guarantor of European security.

Burns was asked if the U.S. risked reigniting a trans-Atlantic row just as ties are improving following disagreements over Iraq.

"No, not at all, this is not new," he said. "For six months now, the [United] States has been discussing in public our concerns about some of the initiatives put forth by France and Germany in April when they met with the Belgian and Luxembourg leaders."

But Burns expressed optimism that the U.S. and its European allies can resolve the dispute.

"This is a terribly important discussion that we're having. I think we can have it without emotion, we should have it without emotion and I think we can resolve it, because it think that the majority of countries in NATO want to preserve a strong and vital NATO," Burns said.

The two-day conference ended yesterday.