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Cologne Summit: France presses for new defence force

FRANCE OUTLINED ambitious plans yesterday to place the rapid reaction corps it dominates at the centre of the EU's new military strategy, putting pressure on Britain to join an embryo pan-European armed force.

As European leaders took an historic first step by agreeing to a new defence role, Paris made it clear that it would table new proposals to toughen up the agreement designed to allow the EU to undertake its own crisis intervention mission.

In discussions among heads of government Jacques Chirac, the French president, said that Eurocorps, a rapid reaction force in which France is prominent, should be at the centre of the new EU defence identity. Eurocorps, which is currently represented in Bosnia in a peace-keeping role, involves France, Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg and is the first pan-European rapid reaction force. French moves to expand it, first mooted over the weekend in a Franco- German meeting, will raise new questions for the British government which yesterday said it has "yet to take a position" on membership. Mr Blair has been keen to boost Britain's role in European defence and reached a new understanding with the French in St Malo last December.

That marked a departure from the previous government which resisted any European moves to increase defence.Whether Mr Blair will be willing to commit British forces to Eurocorps, something his opponents could present as an embryo European army, remains to be seen. Britain has repeatedly stated that the new initiative is a collaborative one, and that there will be no role for the European Commission. In an outspoken performance, President Chirac called for a permanent political and security committee to be installed in Brussels, presided over by Europe's new high representative for foreign affairs, expected to be Javier Solana, the current Nato Secretary General. France also called for the military and defence planning capabilities of the Western European Union to be incorporated into the EU, and for regular meetings of defence ministers.

A French government spokeswoman said Mr Blair had responded positively to Mr Chirac's intervention, although British and German officials were more non-committal, saying they would need to see the detail first. Yesterday's deal does make provision for many of the developments envisaged by France if there is support. It argues that the initiative may require a permanent body in Brussels.