Leading article: What is needed is a real European defence policy

BARONESS THATCHER'S tirade against greater European defence integration should not be entirely dismissed as the dyspeptic musings of this country's most trenchant Eurosceptic. Certainly, much of her speech in New York this week was predictable. Do not be misled by promises that the Europeans are simply trying to take some of the security burden off America's shoulders, she said. As with the single currency, the true name of the defence game is the creation of a European superstate to challenge the US and, in the process, destroy Nato. As Washington's trustiest ally, Britain, Lady Thatcher believes, should have no part of such a venture.

Suffice it to make two points. First, it did not require the existence of a European superstate to underline how pitiful was Europe's dependence upon American equipment and firepower during the Kosovo war - a dependence that has already had many senior officials in Washington insisting, "Never again." Second, fears that Europe is out to supplant Nato are absurd.

For one thing, with the best will in the world it will be a decade before we are in a position to act separately from the US. For another, the overwhelming majority of EU members agree with Britain that the Atlantic alliance must remain the cornerstone of Europe's defence. If France secretly sees the project as a means of ridding us of the Americans, it is virtually alone. What is more, the envisaged 60,000-strong force, capable of swift deployment in time of crisis, will in no sense be a European standing army. Ultimate control will lie not with the faceless bureaucrats of Thatcherite nightmare, deep in a Brussels command bunker, but with individual national governments, acting in concert.

None the less, as EU heads of government prepare to launch a historic defence initiative in Helsinki this weekend, one point made by Lady Thatcher cannot be overemphasised. For all the rousing statements of intent by Blair, Schroder and Chirac, defence spending across Europe is, if anything, falling, not least in Germany.

This trend must be reversed. Whatever "peace dividend" arose from the end of the Cold War has long since been exhausted. We cannot pretend, as some leaders re-assure their hostile electorates, that the problem can be solved by "getting more out of what's there". In vital areas such as command and control, smart weapons technology and, above all, transport, what is needed is simply not there; it must be acquired from scratch.

What matters now are not the ringing pledges we hear from Helsinki (however much they upset Lady Thatcher) but hard decisions about money, taken in national capitals in the months ahead. Without them, the finest defence blueprint will scarcely be worth the paper it is printed on.