Cook says EU may have a defence role

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, made a small but atmospherically significant move yesterday towards accepting a limited role for the European Union in defence matters.

He said the new government would stoutly resist pressure from France, Germany and others to bring defence policy into the legal and constitutional framework of the EU. He would, however, accept new language in the EU treaties, setting out the principles for European involvement in humanitarian missions, peace-keeping and even peace-making. Mr Cook was speaking during and after his first formal appearance on the European political stage, at a meeting in Paris of foreign and defence ministers of the Western European Union.

The WEU, an insubstantial organisation for most of its half-century life, has developed recently as a largely untested European defence arm within Nato. A group of European countries wish it to be fully absorbed into the EU as part of constitutional changes to be finalised in Amsterdam next month. Yesterday Mr Cook said the Government, like its predecessor, would block such a move, which might imply majority voting on defence matters and the development of a fully fledged EU defence policy.

Britain remained committed to Nato as the core of a British and European defence policy, in which decisions were taken by sovereign governments by consensus.

"Security and defence are matters which intimately touch on the identity of nation-states. We don't believe any nation state would be willingly outvoted on a matter which touches on its defence."

But the new government would be willing to consider ways of strengthening WEU-EU links, Mr Cook said. He could accept the writing into the new EU treaty, due to emerge from the Amsterdam summit, of the humanitarian, rescue, peace-making and peace-keeping tasks allotted to the WEU at Petersberg, near Bonn, in 1992.

This is further than the previous government was prepared to go but is a logical extension of policy pursued by Britain and other governments of making the WEU a kind of informal EU-Nato hybrid. The implications are difficult to define, since all 10 WEU states are also EU members.

It would allow EU countries, as part of their common foreign-policy discussions, to consider and decide on humanitarian and peace-keeping tasks which would be carried out be the same countries in their guise as WEU members.

Constitutionally, it amounts to only a small shift.

Decisions would still have to be taken by consensus, not by majority vote. But Mr Cook's comments were taken by the Dutch, Germans and others as a welcome first British step towards a clearer definition of a European defence identity.

It might provide the basis for a compromise on security and defence issues in Amsterdam which would allow progress on other treaty changes.

Britain set to

rejoin Unesco


again in Unesco

Robin Cook announced in Paris yesterday that Britain would rejoin the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organisation "in the near future".

The Thatcher government pulled Britain out of Unesco in 1985, lending weight to US complaints that it had become financially out of control and was devoted to a leftish and Third World agenda.