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EU prepares to form army of 40,000 troops

EUROPE WILL take a historic step next week towards setting up a rapid-reaction military force of about 40,000 men, which should be ready for action within four years.

The move, which will mark a radical departure for the EU, will be discussed on Monday by ministers from the 15 member states who are likely to agree a British proposal to earmark forces from around Europe.

Plans under discussion foresee one corps, made up probably of three divisions, ready for deployment at short notice by the end of 2003, on stand-by within the member states for peace-keeping and crisis intervention. One diplomat said that there was "an emerging consensus" that the ideas should be unveiled by heads of government at next month's EU summit in Helsinki.

France and Germany are likely to press for Eurocorps, a rapid-reaction force in which France is prominent, to be at the heart of the new EU defence element. Eurocorps, which has been in Bosnia in a peace-keeping role, involves France, Germany, Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg and is the first pan-European rapid- reaction force. Meanwhile neutral Finland and Sweden have peace-keeping forces identified for UN duties.

Monday's discussion is also likely to endorse a long- predicted move to strengthen the role of Javier Solana, the EU's head of foreign policy. Mr Solana, the former secretary general of Nato, is expected to combine his new EU job with that of secretary general of the Western European Union, Europe's current, low-key defence arm. EU leaders have so far failed to agree the structures under which Mr Solana will work, in particular whether he will chair a new committee at ambassador level. Some fear that setting up such a senior hierarchy might be interpreted as a challenge to Nato.

There has been no clear agreement yet on how to homogenise European forces, and secure increases in spending in key areas. Some of the more ambitious plans to beef up European defence by establishing defence spending "convergence criteria" have proved slow to develop. This is mainly because of the different size and structure of the defence establishments around the EU, with several countries spending much of their resources maintaining a conscript army.

During the Kosovo conflict the US repeatedly pointed out that it was carrying a disproportionate share of the military burden in areas including heavy lift and intelligence. But since then some in Washington have voiced fears that the EU's new military ambitions may come to eclipse Nato, which is still the guarantor of territorial defence of Europe.