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NATO: Defense Ministers Meeting Overshadowed By EU Military Plans

The NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels yesterday was overshadowed by news over the weekend that France, Germany, and Britain had come to an understanding on the EU's defense plans. Both U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and outgoing NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson indicated that while abler EU military capabilities and even a mutual-defense clause in the EU's new constitution are acceptable, an EU operational planning staff independent of NATO is not.

Brussels, 2 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The preferred response of both NATO and U.S. officials yesterday in Brussels to questions involving the European Union's future defense plans was to sidestep them.

Appearing at a meeting of NATO defense ministers, officials appeared to follow a two-pronged strategy. Firstly, they said, the issue of EU defense capabilities was still hypothetical since discussions within the EU are far from over. Secondly, they repeated that -- in their view -- the only clear result to emerge from the EU constitutional debate so far is that NATO will remain the unchallenged cornerstone of trans-Atlantic security.

Rumsfeld yesterday said any detailed questions on EU plans should be addressed to NATO foreign ministers, who are meeting in Brussels on 4 December, and possibly the EU summit next week.

"I think I'm going to let the foreign ministers and the prime ministers sort through that and characterize [the EU defense plans]," Rumsfeld said. "First of all, this is a hypothetical question, we don't know what's going to evolve, and I've set out my views here earlier and I don't know that I can add to it usefully."

Rumsfeld had, a few moments earlier, summed up the U.S. view: "Our policy is very clear, that we strongly support NATO as the primary form of trans-Atlantic defense. We support [an] ESDP [European Security and Defense Policy] that is NATO-friendly. Therefore we worked hard, our alliance did, for 4 1/2 years to fashion 'Berlin Plus,' [an agreement signed earlier this year giving the EU access to NATO assets,] which we support and we stand by them."

Officials privately indicated that the key concept here is the "Berlin Plus" agreement. The United States and NATO, as embodied by George Robertson, appear to see its provisions as a line that the EU must not cross.

Pushed by reporters, Robertson indicated that NATO -- or more precisely, the United States and like-minded countries within the alliance -- do not see a need for the EU either militarily or otherwise to set up any command-and-control facilities going beyond "Berlin Plus."

"The 'Berlin Plus' arrangements provide for the European Union doing its operations, using the national operational-planning assets of originally three countries -- Germany, France, and the United Kingdom -- and additional individual countries as they build their own capabilities," Robertson said. "So, there already is an operational planning group that is available to the European Union through the national headquarters for any mission that is likely to take place outside of 'Berlin Plus.' There is a European military staff and a European Military Committee in the EU institutions [in Brussels] involved in strategic planning and they can connect with the operational-planning components in national capitals. That is perfectly compatible with, indeed is absolutely within the letter and spirit of 'Berlin Plus.' "

One of the underlying assumptions of "Berlin Plus" is that the EU will only autonomously tackle those missions which NATO as a whole -- or the United States -- does not want to undertake. In other words, NATO is given the first refusal on any operation.

Robertson seemed to suggest yesterday that the EU should not set its sights very high. "You're never going to get some clear dividing line that says the European Union will handle crises below a certain number of people or a certain size of country and the rest will go to NATO," he said. "But I think it will be perfectly easy to recognize the situation when the situation comes along, as it has indeed up to now. The European Union has defined its military ambitions in terms of the 'Petersberg tasks' [set by EU leaders in 1992], and they are down as civil emergency, civilian evacuation, crisis management, and peacekeeping. And that, in a way, has been a very useful definition, which largely indicates where the EU countries' capabilities are."

Robertson described this situation as a "grand bargain." The United States, he said, won't have to get involved in "every brushfire in the European backyard," while the EU gets access to "irreplaceable assets" from the United States via NATO.

Robertson noted the EU is a "long way away" from being able to develop such assets itself -- whether it be large transport planes, precision-guided weapons, or air-to-air refueling.