US signals welcome for EU defence initiative

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The Independent US

The United States yesterday gave its warmest welcome yet to the European Union's efforts to forge its own defence identity, saying that Nato would have to share responsibility for handling security crises that affected Europe.

The United States yesterday gave its warmest welcome yet to the European Union's efforts to forge its own defence identity, saying that Nato would have to share responsibility for handling security crises that affected Europe.

Washington has, in the past, openly expressed its fears that the EU initiative, which includes setting up a 60,000-strong rapid reaction force by 2003, would merely duplicate and weaken the Atlantic Alliance, dominated by the US.

But William Cohen, the Defence Secretary, told Nato defence ministers meeting in Birmingham the US accepted that a security dimension to the EU was a "natural, even inevitable" part of the process of European integration. "We agree with this goal, not grudgingly, not with resignation, but with wholehearted conviction," he said. Nato, he conceded, would no longer be the only multilateral body dealing with defence issues in Europe.

This far more positive language from the US drew an instant welcome from France,ever the strongest advocate of breaking Europe's reliance on the US in the defence arena.Alain Richard, the French Defence minister, expressed "profound delight" at the "new climate" in relations between the EU and Nato. Independent analysts called Mr Cohen's speech a noteworthy departure, which boded well.

The breakthrough comes little more than a month before a key pledging conference at which potential EU defence partners will specify what forces they are ready to commit to the new venture. Mr Cohen called for regular meetings of all 23 countries in either the EU or Nato, to allay concerns of non-EU Nato members - notably Turkey, Norway and Poland - that they would be excluded from decision-making.

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