The Europe Debate: Shedding of US ties satisfies Nato members

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The Independent Online
"Are you satisfied?" asked Klaus Kinkel, the German Foreign Minister, as he bumped into his French counterpart, Herve de Charette, in the lift. France was "very satisfied", Mr de Charette assured him.

Nato foreign ministers, meeting in Berlin for the first time in the history of the alliance, had just agreed to free the European members of Nato from their transatlantic shackles.

Britain, historically unhappy about anything that would create a European defence structure separate from Nato, went along quite happily.

"For the first time in the history of the Atlantic alliance, Europe can express its defence identity," proclaimed Mr de Charette, not forgetting to credit France with the achievement. The years in the Cold War wilderness were over.

With the creation of the European Security and Defence Identity (ESDI), the continent's alphabet soup of organisations charged with maintaining the peace has acquired its most vital ingredient yet.

For ESDI is the Holy Grail of European defence, allowing just a few member states to mount peace-keeping missions, even outside the boundaries of Nato. Its most important element is the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF), a sort of defence Lego that can be built up at short notice to send to the world's hot-spots.

Europe lacked this flexibility throughout the Bosnia crisis. In the new set-up, whose technical aspects will be finalised by December, a few interested member-states can raise such an army, which will remain under the aegis of Nato, but will not require the active participation of all members.

A CJTF could operate under the command of the Western European Union (WEU), the defence body that is linked both to Nato and to the European Union.

But this is not the kind of European force that France has been clamouring for, nor that which Britain has fought against. "There was a suggestion at one stage that there should be a separate European command structure," Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, said. "It did not survive, nor did it deserve to."

While Mr Rifkind was in Berlin, the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, was in Paris, underlining the view that defence, armaments and armies are matters to be decided primarily by sovereign governments, not by the "supranational institutions" of the European Union.

Mr Portillo sought to differentiate between defence groupings, such as Nato and the West European Union on the one hand, and the EU on the other.

He wanted to scotch the idea that either the new European "pillar" in Nato or the WEU were, or could become, the defence arm of the European Union. Addressing an audience at the French military academy, he insisted that neither Nato nor the WEU could submit itself to policies made by the EU.

He also stressed that Europe was only at the beginning of its quest for a new defence structure: "The WEU is not and will not be, a European substitute for Nato. But it is the right body to provide political authority and direction for European operations in future," he said.

Mr Portillo said that instances of "acting unilaterally within Nato" would "begin at the small end and for some time ahead be limited".

The new deal, if anything, ties the United States more firmly to Europe than ever before. Without US input, a combined European force would have trouble pacifying Liechtenstein, let alone bringing peace to the Balkans.

Any mission will continue to rely on US satellite intelligence, heavy military transport aircraft and communications technology, which under this agreement can now be "borrowed" from Nato.

But the arrangements will allow future US presidents to help out with small-scale Bosnia-style missions without provoking resistance in Congress. And decisions about missions of any kind will still have to be approved by all Nato member- states, and the use of Nato assets during an operation will be kept "under review". In other words, what the US gives, it can take away.

Rather than Nato going to France, it is France that has been beating the path to the alliance in recent months, starting with full political participation in Nato meetings, and leading inevitably to France's return to the military fold. "France will not rejoin yesterday's alliance. It could do it in the new alliance," Mr de Charette said.

In this new age of enlightenment, Paris has given up its goal of converting the Western European Union into a fully fledged military arm of the EU. "The WEU's policies and role will be much more modest than its previous rhetoric implied," Mr Rifkind predicted.

The result, Britain hopes, will be to underpin the alliance - but also to give it a more modern face, to make it Europe's flexible friend. "Nato continues to be the only credible force when it comes to combat operations or operations of any scale ," Mr Rifkind said.