The Government is finalising a radical proposal to scrap the Western European Union, the continent's autonomous defence organisation, and set up a new EU force.
The idea, disclosed in a confidential policy paper obtained by the Independent on Sunday, is supported by Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary. It is also backed by Defence Secretary George Robertson who has become increasingly frustrated with the ineffectiveness of the WEU and thinks radical reform is needed to allow Europe to act decisively in crises such as the current situation in Kosovo.
The move would give Europe more diplomatic and military independence from the United States. But the proposal has infuriated some of Britain's most senior diplomats and defence chiefs, who believe it could undermine the independence of the UK's own forces and threaten relations with the Americans.
Sir John Goulden, Britain's ambassador to Nato, is among those who have formally complained about the plan in a "strongly worded" missive to Sir John Kerr, the head of the diplomatic service.
The plan is discussed in a document by Robert Cooper, a senior diplomat, which has been sent to the Prime Minister. It states: "A European capacity to act independently in the defence field is a natural concomitant of a common foreign policy. When the Americans do not want to participate, Europe should have the ability to act alone. We should aim at a package which merges the EU and WEU."
Downing Street insiders say Mr Blair is "very sympathetic" and plans to formally propose it to other heads of state at a meeting later this year.
The proposal will infuriate Eurosceptics who will see it as an attempt to further undermine British sovereignty by putting UK troops under the control of Brussels. EU leaders would be able to call up soldiers from across the Union in times of crisis or for peace-keeping missions. British defence chiefs also fear that the chain of command between the national and EU forces would be unclear and that their independence might be compromised.
Michael Howard, the shadow Foreign Secretary, yesterday condemned the plan as an attempt to loosen ties with the United States. Although Nato would continue to co-ordinate military activity, the EU would be given political power to decide how to implement its troops. "Nato must remain the bedrock of Europe's defence," Mr Howard said.
The Prime Minister raised the idea of reforming the military structures of the EU in a private meeting with Dr Viktor Klima, the Austrian chancellor, in the spring. According to officials, he said that this would be one way in which Britain could "lead in Europe".
Mr Blair believes it would be politically advantageous to the UK because Britain's military expertise, which he praised during his speech to the Labour Party conference in Blackpool, would make it central to the construction of a new EU force.
The plan is likely to be well received by other states which want more autonomy from the US. Countries such as Austria, Finland, Sweden and Denmark which did not want to be involved in a joint defence policy would be able to opt out.Reuse content