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The London European Conference: Transatlantic partnership remains a source of rivalry: The growing gap between the US and the new Europe is causing concern. Andrew Marshall reports

THE RELATIONSHIP between the United States and Europe emerged as one of the most controversial issues of the conference yesterday, after John Major argued for a strong transatlantic link and the continuing primacy of Nato in defence.

The subtitle of the event is 'Partners or rivals?' Speakers left no doubt that the transatlantic relationship will embody both, as Europe develops a common defence policy through the Maastricht treaty and comes into conflict with Washington over trade and economic issues.

'We have a common defence of Europe and that common defence is called Nato,' the Prime Minister said in opening the conference. 'Maastricht does not resolve the argument for all time. It does, however, preserve the benefits of what we already have. It maintains the primacy of Nato while building up the European role within Nato.'

But speakers from other countries were concerned by the growing gap between the US and Europe. 'Tensions between us can either sap our energy to act or they can stimulate our thinking to deal with the challenges we face,' General Colin Powell, chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, said.

The general, a key figure in the Gulf war coalition, said that the way to revive support for the alliance was 'not to wish for the return of the 'godless commies' or to conjure up new threats to galvanise us into action'. A new partnership had to be created, but social, economic and environmental challenges would have to play a much larger role.

The gap between different views of the future made evident by speakers clearly worries many smaller European countries. Norway's defence minister, Johan Jorgen Holst, feared that a new framework for defence 'could clearly pose a competing, less integrated structure than the two existing alliances (Western European Union and Nato)'. Norway has yet to apply to join the EC but is a staunch member of Nato.

Sweden is neutral and thus not a member of Nato, but is negotiating EC membership. Carl Bildt, its prime minister, argued that 'in our part of the world it is only the emerging European union which has the possibility of developing . . . a security policy in the decades ahead'.

A common European defence policy is one of the most controversial issues for new EC members and in the ratification of Maastricht, especially in Denmark, which rejected the treaty in a referendum.

Uffe Elleman-Jensen, Denmark's foreign minister, said: 'It remains essential to us that a European security and defence identity reinforces rather than weakens the integrity and effectiveness of the alliance.'

Uncertainty about whether the EC will emerge as a significant political block, or will remain an economic institution, pervaded the conference. This is the key dilemma in the controversy over Maastricht, which seeks to translate the EC into a more politically integrated European union.

'The contribution that the Community as such can make to the new world order can, to use an image from the plant world, be considered something of a hybrid, what is produced by crossing a world power with an international organisation,' Jacques Delors, president of the EC Commission, argued.

Many of the European speakers yesterday saw it as a prize orchid. But it was clear that most of the US speakers, after the EC's ignominious performances in the Gulf and Yugoslavia, saw it as a weed.