Europe lays the foundation for EU defence arm

WEU summit: Ministers avoid defining role for long term, but agree basis for joint operations
European governments agreed yesterday to push forward rapidly with a series of measures to allow them to conduct joint military operations independently of Nato.

Foreign and defence ministers of the Western European Union, meeting in Birmingham, reaffirmed plans to give the long-moribund defence body the capacity to conduct peace-keeping and humanitarian operations by the end of the year. The meeting of 27 governments - 10 full WEU members, plus observers, "associates" and "partners" - skirted around the trickier questions of the body's longer-term political aims and development.

At present the revivified WEU is a wife with two husbands: it acts as the European arm of Nato and, in an ill-defined way, as the security wing of the European Union. A number of European governments, led by Germany, would like to see the WEU fully absorbed into the EU as part of the present negotiations on reform of the Union treaties. Britain fiercely opposes such a step.

The French government took up an in-between position. It supported the British view that priority should be given to the practical moves agreed yesterday to equip the WEU with the intelligence, transport and command-and-control capacities to act independently of the US-dominated Nato alliance. But the French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, made it clear that Paris saw this as a first stage towards the creation of a defence policy within the EU, without threatening the pre-eminence of Nato.

"In the long term WEU will merge with the European Union but the time has not yet come," he said. "Everything has to be achieved in a step by step fashion, so that the WEU can first become a useful tool for European foreign policy."

Mr de Charette startled British officials by proposing that the financing of the developments needed to create a fully-functioning WEU should be agreed at EU level. France has already said it wants WEU policy to be decided at EU summits. Both ideas go much further than the British government is prepared to tolerate.

But these differences were only hinted at yesterday: they are quarrels for the future. Other European governments are pleased that, within limits, Britain has been playing a positive role in the re-shaping of post-Soviet European security policy.

Britain presides over the WEU for the first half of this year and has pushed forward a number of practical changes needed to allow the body to emerge from Nato's shadow after nearly 50 years. The aim is to make the WEU separable from Nato but not separate; in other words to develop a capacity for independent European crisis-management, peace-keeping and fire-fighting in situations in which the US does not wish to get involved.

A WEU intelligence unit has been set up in Brussels and Nato agreed this week to share some classified information with this body. A permanent WEU situation centre for managing crises will start up in Brussels next month. Ministers yesterday called for urgent decisions on the permanent sharing of Nato resources - especially communications and transport - to meet the target of an operational WEU by the end of the year.

The Birmingham meeting also decided that observer members of WEU - neutral countries such as Sweden and Ireland - could be invited to take part in peace-keeping exercises.

The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, who chaired the meeting, said afterwards that a merger between the WEU and EU "should not arise", even in the long term. It would confuse WEU's role as a component of the Atlantic alliance and make difficulties for the neutral EU states. He also rejected suggestions that financing of the WEU should be agreed at EU level.

The Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, said more progress had been made towards making the WEU an "operational force" in the last six months than in "many years before".

It is clear however that the WEU will - initially at any rate - be capable of undertaking only light duties. The suggestion that it organise a peace-keeping force for Bosnia, to succeed the Nato-run implementation force(I-For) next year, was slapped down by both British and French officials. Mr de Charette said the idea, floated by the European Commission, was "irresponsible". The US and European troops in I-For had gone to Bosnia together and would leave together, he said. The decision on what should happen next lay with Nato, not the EU.