New battle over more powers for EU foreign chief

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GERMANY AND France yesterday started a new battle over ambitious plans for a European defence capacity, by demanding wide-ranging powers for Javier Solana, Europe's new foreign policy supremo.

GERMANY AND France yesterday started a new battle over ambitious plans for a European defence capacity, by demanding wide-ranging powers for Javier Solana, Europe's new foreign policy supremo.

The plan, outlined in a joint letter, provoked alarm among small countries, Europe's neutral states and the presidency of the EU, highlighting the acute sensitivity of Mr Solana's new role as representative of member states.The four neutral EU states are Austria, Finland, Ireland and Sweden.

It also raised the prospect of Mr Solana becoming the predominant foreign policy voice of the EU, with Chris Patten, the external affairs commissioner, playing a more back-seat role. The letter, circulated as heads of government met in Tampere, Finland, called for Mr Solana to chair a permanent political and security committee of the EU, to "take on a high-profile role in representing the EU externally", and to take a key role in dialogue between the EU and other countries or international organisations.

Several member states, including Britain, back the idea of Mr Solana taking over the secretary generalship of the Western European Union, the defence organisation likely to be folded into Europe's new defence structure.

However the scale of the Franco-German plan provoked opposition from a range of countries which saw the move as a power grab. One diplomat said: "The opposition is coming from small countries, the neutrals and the presidency."

British officials said they were relaxed about the position of Mr Patten, who represents external affairs for the European Commission. His position was secure because he controlled the purse strings of EU spending, he added.

Detailed plans to beef up European defence capacity will be debated at a summit in Helsinki in December, where Britain wants to agree "convergence criteria" under which spending on armed forces of member states would be aligned. Mr Solana, the former Nato secretary general, takes up his European post next week.

Yesterday officials struggled to agree concrete proposals for a single European asylum system and a European judicial area after a series of anodyne exchanges among prime ministers. Several diplomats feared that the conclusions to be unveiled today will be judged the lowest common denominator.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, argued that "the way forward for co-operation between European states is not trying to pull up different legal systems by the roots", adding: "It is neither possible, desirable nor necessary to uproot centuries of tradition which lie behind our legal systems."

The UK opposed calls for sharing the financial costs of asylum applications, proposed by the European Commission and backed by Germany and the Netherlands.

Meanwhile the Finnish Foreign Minister, Tarja Halonen, told refugee groups that the EU had to balance human rights concerns with its need to deter bogus applications and improve conditions countries that produced refugees.

Ideas being debated include the acceptance of European warrants for serious offences, phasing out extradition, and a system where orders for the seizure or freezing of assets issued in one country could be executed in another.

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