Blair and Chirac in defence pact

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A BLUEPRINT for a European-wide defence policy is expected to be agreed by Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac at a two-day Anglo-French summit in St Malo tomorrow and Friday.

The outline agreement could eventually allow the EU to take over responsibility for defence from the Western European Union, its fledging defence arm.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary and George Robertson, the Secretary,of State for Defence, meet their French counterparts in Paris today to pave the way for the two leaders' historic agreement.

The three-pronged "statement of principles" will cover: ensuring the EU punches its weight in the world on foreign and security policy; a new, effective decision-making pro-cess; and an enhanced defence capability. Last night British sources said the two countries were on course for agreement but admitted there were outstanding issues still to be resolved over the role of Nato. Britain is insisting that the new EU defence plans must not undermine Nato or create a "Nato mark two" but France has traditionally been more lukewarm about the organisation.

Germany and France meanwhile found much to disagree over at their summit in Potsdam yesterday, but Britain again presented them with an opportunity to sound alike. This time, however, unlike previous instances of unity forged in the face of the common enemy, they outbid each other in singing Tony Blair's praises.

President Jacques Chirac had come to Potsdam deeply impressed by Downing Street's recent volte-face over the "European defence identity". Until now, Britain wanted none of it, much to the chagrin of French leaders. But Mr Blair's endorsement of the idea of a broader European defence role within the West European Union gave France and Germany something to celebrate.

It also gave their leaders something to put in their joint declaration. "We shall seek ways to allow the European Union to have operational capabilities which it had lacked until now," they said.

But defence also highlighted the distance between Paris and Bonn, and the proximity of Britain to the Germans. Fed up with French prevarication, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder told President Chirac that the German defence industry was ready to forge closer ties with Britain's, and France risked missing the boat. The German aeronautics giant Dasa is planning a merger with British Aerospace to create a concern that cancompete with America's best. France's Aerospatiale is also supposed to join the Europe-wide alliance, but its application has been held up because it is still partly controlled by the government. France was told yesterday that no more delays will be allowed.

Despite many brave words, the Franco-German axis was also stuck on the key issue of EU reform, needed to prepare the community for its coming expansion.

Germany says it wants to conclude Agenda 2000, the reform blueprint, at a special EU summit it will organise under its presidency in March.

Meanwhile, the timetable for the EU's eastward enlargement is slipping. Not even the French President is prepared to name a date for the new members' accession.