Chirac says Europe needs its own spy satellite, free of US

France wants Europe to develop its own spy satellite facility as a "necessary precondition for achieving strategic autonomy", President Jacques Chirac said yesterday. Underlining the desire of the Gaullist government for a European defence capacity that could operate independently of the United States, Mr Chirac said he also favoured the inclusion of defence structures within the European Union.

He was speaking on the second day of the annual assembly of the West European Union, the political arm of Nato in Europe, just a year after France announced its decision to rejoin most Nato structures. He was the first French president ever to address the 48-year-old organisation.

France and Germany are already co-operating on the development of a reconnaissance satellite. But Mr Chirac's proposal went further, calling for a "real European capability in space intelligence" and making it clear this was needed for "strategic autonomy".

The lack of its own satellite reconnaissance capacity makes Europe entirely dependent on the US for military operations abroad. Europe's other main deficiency is the lack of large military transport planes. Mr Chirac did not mention this, though he did appeal for the embryonic European defence agency (at present comprising France, Germany, Britain and Italy) to become "a competitive industrial and technological base".

These were two of four points Mr Chirac set out as France's programme for its presidency of the WEU which begins next January. The others were the streamlining of current armed forces co-operation in Europe - which at present includes the mainly Franco-German Eurocorps and the mainly Franco-British European Air Group - and closer co-operation in operational planning between the WEU and Nato.

The tenor of Mr Chirac's speech, with its strong emphasis on European defence autonomy, appeared to offer at least half an answer to a question widely posed when France rejoined Nato last year. Was its return an acceptance that in the post-Cold War world it needed the shelter of the Atlantic Alliance, or did it see its membership as a stage towards the creation of stronger European pillar within Nato which could eventually become an autonomous defence alliance?