Leading Article: In defence of a sound European initiative

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The Independent Culture
A YEAR ago, Mr Blair held his first full-dress Anglo-French bilateral summit, in the London docklands skyscraper which also happens to house the offices of this newspaper. It was an occasion of fanfare rather than substance, most memorable for the prattle about the merits of young British designers and chefs. Twelve months on, we are down to serious business. The talks in St Malo today and tomorrow between the Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin promise a groundbreaking initiative by London and Paris to promote a European defence identity. Not a standing European army, it should be quickly said, but at the minimum a distinct European voice in an area from which it has been embarrassingly absent.

That we have come so far so soon is a small triumph of its own. When Mr Blair launched the idea in October, it was largely dismissed as a stunt designed to create the illusion of a Britain "at the heart of Europe" despite its shunning of the single currency. But much spadework since by Downing Street and the Foreign Office has convinced Paris we are in earnest. Famously, Britain is "good" at matters military. France is the only other EU power with the ability, not to mention the self confidence, to project serious power abroad. In that sense at least, if the venture comes to pass, we will be "leading" Europe.

But let us not get carried away. Defence is unlikely to provide the opening Britain has long sought, to turn the Franco-German axis into a triangle straddling the Channel. The success of the common currency, in which Bonn and Paris have invested so much prestige, remains their overriding priority. And as in most things European, the devil of defence co-operation will be in the detail - of mission, logistics, and command structures, not to mention the planned restructuring of the EU defence industry.

In fact, everything in Europe is up in the air. Enlargement, the other great preoccupation of the Union, is becoming perilously entangled with the ever growing need for a streamlining of EU institutions and the extension of majority voting to speed up decision-making. But the row over tax harmonisation has only strengthened Britain's resolve to cling to its veto to the bitter end. Germany and France meanwhile may be the two villains of the taxation piece. But as their own summit this week displayed, the EU's two traditional powers are at diametric odds on a host of issues, above all on the German demand for a cut in its net EU budget contribution and changes in the Common Agricultural Policy. As the largest beneficiary of the CAP, which accounts for 70 per cent of the budget, the French will hear none of this. Better then that amid the confusion, the defence initiative is pursued solely on its own considerable merits. It should not be subsumed into the wider debate on Europe's development, whose outcome has rarely appeared so unpredictable.