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NATO: Dispute Over European Defense Policy On Hold For The Moment

The extraordinary NATO meeting called by the United States yesterday appears to have served its immediate purpose. NATO officials say tensions over European Union defense policy evident last week have largely dissipated, and that U.S. representatives obtained important clarifications from their EU colleagues. NATO ambassadors are continuing their talks in Brussels today. NATO Secretary-General George Robertson and the EU's security chief, Javier Solana, are expected to stress that no serious rift exists between the United States and the EU.

Brussels, 21 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- NATO officials yesterday sought to downplay media reports of a serious rift between the United States and a group of EU member states, led by France and Germany, intent on setting up operational planning capabilities separate from NATO.

NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said last night that the United States had received assurances that the EU is not seeking to duplicate NATO. He noted the atmosphere at the meeting had been "better" than last week, when the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Nicholas Burns, reportedly described the French-German plan to set up a separate EU military headquarters for operational planning as "the most serious threat to the future of NATO."

However, Shea did not explain what precisely had prompted Burns' comments or how they had been assuaged yesterday. A senior NATO diplomat is quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying France and Germany simply kept a low profile at the meeting.

Shea did note that "things have moved very quickly in the EU," and that the bloc needs to keep the United States and NATO informed to avoid "misunderstandings."

However, there have been no reports to suggest that either France or Germany are ready to give up their plans for autonomous EU operational planning facilities. Neither has Britain conclusively ruled out its participation in any EU defense cooperation, beyond saying it must not threaten NATO's role as the preeminent security guarantor in Europe.

A further problem appears to be that when Burns demanded "more transparency" from his EU allies, he may have touched another nerve. The EU is in the process of a profound constitutional debate, of which defense issues are one part, although a mutual defense guarantee a la NATO has now been virtually ruled out. Nevertheless, even some traditionally U.S.-friendly countries have indicated they do not take kindly to attempts by Washington to meddle in the debate or to force its course.

The EU constitution is likely to allow for small groups of EU member states to initiate closer defense cooperation among themselves, provided the group remains open to others. So far, there is little in the debate to suggest any in-principle constraints to definitively rule out any rivalry with NATO or the U.S. in the future.

It is worth noting that the EU already possesses its own military staff and an ambassadorial-level Military Committee. In crisis situations, the staff is responsible for the identification and assessment of military options for the EU, which it will then pass on to the Military Committee.

The key problem for the United States -- and particularly Britain, which is attempting to steer a delicate middle course -- is not the existence or extension of the existing facilities, but whether to go beyond "strategic planning" and also endow it with facilities for operational planning and force generation for concrete missions.

So far, the EU has conducted one mission completely independently of NATO -- in the Congo from June to September -- for which France acted as the "framework nation," providing at a national level the requisite operational planning and most of the troops.

The joint meeting of EU and NATO ambassadors today is unlikely to add much clarity to the situation. More can be expected from the meeting between the U.S. secretary of state, Colin Powell, and his EU counterparts in Brussels on 18 November.