"The lesson of the last year is that the days of big defence budget cuts are over for Europe," George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, said as Labour and the Liberal Democrats presented proposals for a stronger European Union defence identity.
The plan, the first tangible results of the joint cabinet committees set up by the two parties after the 1997 election, builds on the Franco- British declaration at December's St Malo summit, and the agreement at last month's Nato gathering in Washington for the EU to have access to alliance "assets and capabilities" for operations in which the US did not wish to take part directly.
The scheme specifically rules out a European army, and insists that participating governments should have the sovereign right to commit or withhold troops as it saw fit. Nor would the future EU defence identity replace or duplicate Nato. Rather it would complement it, creating a more equal partnership between the US and Europe within the alliance.
The need for more effective European defence co-operation has been vividly illustrated by the Kosovo crisis, in which America is contributing some 90 per cent of the air power.
The scheme should be open to all EU members, whether or not they were members of Nato, and to European members of Nato, even if they were not in the EU. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said there would probably have to be "convergence criteria" whereby participants would have to spend a certain proportion of their budgets on defence.Reuse content