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EU/NATO: Differences Persist In Defense Visions

Lord George Robertson, NATO's secretary-general, and Javier Solana, the European Union's security policy chief, last night attempted to downplay a potentially damaging row over EU defense plans. However, subtle and possibly significant differences were evident in the interpretations of the situation. Where Robertson asked for a clear EU commitment to using NATO assets, Solana could only offer assurances that a stronger EU will lead to a stronger NATO.

Brussels, 22 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Rarely do words spoken in apparent harmony and with a unity of purpose manage to portray such divergent visions.

At a news conference last night following a mammoth ambassadorial meeting in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson spoke of a "substantial meeting," full of close and transparent dialogue. He said the talks allowed NATO and the European Union to finally put aside their differences over the future of European defense.

"This meeting yet again demonstrates that relations between our two institutions are close and fully transparent, both of us committed to working together, building security in Europe, and, indeed, beyond Europe," Robertson said.

Robertson's analysis of the situation revolved around three key notions to which he returned time and again -- "complementarity," the need to avoid "unnecessary duplication" between the EU and NATO, and "transparency."

He pointedly hinted that much of last week's disagreement -- prompting the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Nicholas Burns, to warn of a serious crisis within the alliance -- was down to a lack of proper explanation from the EU side.

"As a result of today's meeting, I'm confident that the EU will be consulting NATO closely on its thinking on all matters that concern NATO and European security," Robertson said, "and indeed, the discussion we had on the EU's security document [first revealed at the Thessaloniki summit in June] is a good example of our open and close consultation."

The EU's security policy chief, Javier Solana, on the other hand, studiously avoided all reference to transparency, complementarity, or duplication.

Instead, he bluntly noted that the EU will not abandon its defense plans and appealed to NATO to view the work being done "constructively," as being potentially beneficial to both.

"But I would like to say also that the European Union is going to continue strengthening ESDP [European Security and Defense Policy]. That is something the leaders of the European Union have decided to continue, and we're going to continue working in that direction," Solana said. "The relationship between NATO and the European Union is not a zero-sum relationship. Therefore, when the ESDP of the European Union is stronger -- as most of the countries of the European Union are [also] members of NATO -- that means that NATO has also strengthened itself."

When asked about the Franco-German wish to set up autonomous EU headquarters for operational military planning -- currently the most contentious element in the NATO-EU debate -- Robertson said the EU should stick to the joint "Berlin Plus" agreement signed last year.

"We already have arrangements in terms of planning under 'Berlin Plus' whereby the EU has automatic and unconditional access to NATO's planning capabilities. That's been working well, and it's working in practice on the ground in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia [where the EU has a monitoring mission]," Robertson said. "The 'Berlin Plus' arrangements recognize that the European Union can and will undertake autonomous operations -- that was foreseen right back in the days when I was party [as British defense secretary] to the St. Malo agreement at the British-French summit in 1998."

Solana made no mention of "Berlin Plus" at all. Instead, he commended the success of the only autonomous EU operation so far -- the French-led mission to Ituri in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Instead of NATO assets, the EU used French operational planning facilities.

Solana seems to indicate bypassing NATO's command structures, known as SHAPE, could become the norm rather than the exception. In addition, Solana appeared to say that a fully fledged EU military headquarters -- as advocated by France and Germany -- will soon need to become a reality.

"Let me say that as the secretary-general [Robertson] has said, the possibility of autonomous operations by the European Union [exists]. We have already done one, in Ituri [in the Democratic Republic of the Congo]," Solana said. "I think it was very successful and, of course, there is a need to have planning capabilities today to do that, and eventually headquarters. Today, we've used headquarters that belong to a country, and there are several countries that do have headquarters that can be 'multinationalized' [for EU use], and that's what we have done."

Robertson then repeated his long-standing exhortation to the EU to work on its capabilities rather than command structures. As at many times before, he called for "more usable" soldiers, increased heavy air-lift capabilities, air-to-air refueling facilities, better logistics support, and improved communications.

"'Berlin Plus,'" he said, is a "great bargain," offering the EU access to all of these missing capabilities as well as NATO's command structures.