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Eurocorps to replace Nato

EUROPE'S DEFENCE ambitions were given a boost yesterday when Britain and other key Nato nations backed plans to put the Franco-German Eurocorps at the heart of peace-keeping operations in Kosovo.

A meeting of Nato defence ministers in Brussels gave support to proposals that the Strasbourg-based Eurocorps should be at the core of the Kosovo operation as early as next year. The ministers' approval comes one week before leaders unveil their plans for a rapid-reaction force, and reinforced the EU's determination to play a greater role in "crisis intervention" and peace-keeping.

Yesterday all parties trod carefully, aware of tensions with Washington over the emergence of the EU's defence capabilities. The move boosts Eurocorps's prestige without challenging US sensitivities because France, which remains outside Nato's integrated structure, agreed that the deployment would fall under the organisation's chain of command.

One British official said that the Eurocorps offer "was genuinely and generally welcomed". "We have been saying that the European Security and Defence Identity is not in competition to Nato, it is a complement to it. This is an expression of that."

Lord Robertson, Nato's new Secretary General, used his first ministerial meeting to underline the need to restructure and increase military spending in the 19-nation alliance. European armies were a "paper tiger", he said, pointing out that although there were two million soldiers under arms in the EU, Nato had difficulty sending 40,000 to Kosovo. Large gaps in Europe's intelligence-gathering capabilities were exposed during the Kosovo campaign and Lord Robertson wanted nations "to spend more and spend smarter".

But yesterday's gathering took place against a background of growing determination in Europe to develop a realistic defence capability. EU heads of government are expected to announce next week the earmarking of a rapid reaction force of between 40,000 and 50,000 troops at a summit in Helsinki.

Under the plan, Eurocorps will take over command of the KFOR peace- keeping force in Kosovo as early as next spring. Backing the proposal, the Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, said Britain would be prepared to augment the Eurocorps. "What is important is that Eurocorps is translated into this kind of headquarters operation."

While the main EU countries have agreed on the desired capabilities of their new security and defence policy, the details of its political control are still to be finalised. The European Commission is confident that the new structures can be set up without the need for a treaty change. But the issue of who will sit on the proposed political and military committee, which will control deployment of the force, is still being debated. The EC has won the backing of several countries in pressing for a seat at the table, although it would not have a vote. That is likely to be resisted by several countries, including Britain.