Leading Article: The crucial next stage of European integration

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The Independent Culture
IN PLEDGING ground troops to any Kosovo peace agreement, Britain and France are trying to send a tough message to Belgrade. At the same time, they are now presented with a precious opportunity. The embryonic "European defence identity" desperately needs added political commitment and military muscle; warning that European troops will be sent, without depending on the Americans to act first, is a sign that it is acquiring them.

This Government has made much of its commitment to such an identity. As Doug Henderson, the Armed Forces Minister, argued on Monday, a European leg of Nato should be able to act with "authority and decisiveness". The St Malo pact of last December, in which the French and British agreed to unprecedented levels of military co-operation, and that such issues could be brought before the EU Council of Ministers, proved to be one of the few high points of the Prime Minister's much-expressed wish to "lead in Europe".

The merger boom in European defence industries is another reason why such a defence union is desirable. A single European defence arm could order weapons on the scale of the US armed forces, matching their scale and scope. The Government has already been promoting such endeavours, which is why the Prime Minister was embarrassed that British Aerospace has chosen to merge with GEC, rather than with the German company Dasa.

Europeans should be able to manage their own affairs, rather than look to the Americans to intervene. It is hard enough to persuade Britons that their forces should fight for small states in the Balkans. Why then should boys from Kansas or Indiana feel that their vital interests are at stake?

This need not cause friction with the Americans, or threaten the future of Nato. A vigorous European assertion of military independence may be welcome in Washington, as shoring up the Nato structure. Better to deal with one confident voice, rather than a discordant ensemble. Successive residents of the White House have, since the Sixties, yearned after a reliable and strong European ally that took off them some of the weight of being world policeman; now such a partner could be in sight.

The British and French made themselves look foolish in Bosnia, using the refusal of the US to commit ground troops before a peace agreement had been reached, to limit their own efforts to supplying food to the victims. Many innocent people had to die before the excuse withered as the Americans joined in air strikes. It is to be hoped that Robin Cook's strong words mean such a tragedy will not be repeated. But it is also possible that operations undertaken in the name of Europe will allow more decisive and immediate action, and herald a crucial new stage of European integration.

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