Europe warms to Britain's defence scheme

Andrew Marshall examines proposals for giving the 15 more military clout
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British plans for European defence received support from other EU countries at the weekend, raising hopes that they will be adopted next year.

The proposals centre on boosting the status of the Western European Union (WEU), the 10-member defence body linked to both the EU and Nato. They were outlined in a memorandum published this month; Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, used the opportunity of the meeting of foreign ministers in Carcassonne to outline them.

There is widespread support in the EU for giving Europe more military clout, though as yet little agreement on how. "This prospect is written into the Treaty on European Union, but the political will has been lacking up to now," said the French Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, at a pan- European security conference in Paris yesterday. "This situation is not good, as has been shown by what has happened in ex-Yugoslavia over the last three years."

The British memorandum opposes integrating the WEU into the EU, partly because Britain rejects giving the European Commission or European Parliament any jurisdiction over defence. But it proposes creating tighter links, by holding back-to-back twice-yearly summits of the two organisations.

Five EU members are not members of the WEU. Ireland, Sweden, Finland and Austria are neutral; Denmark has reservations about a European military organisation. But all these states are either observer or associate members of the WEU and would be able to attend (though not vote in) its summits. So would Turkey, Iceland and Norway, all Nato members but not EU members.

The EU would, under Britain's plans, be able to request action from the WEU, so the WEU would retain some autonomy. In practice, because of the cross-membership, that means the main European military powers, Britain and France, would be able to keep sovereign power over defence.

There is no question that the WEU would replace Nato in the main task of defending Europe. The Europeans lack the forces, they do not have the will to provide them and they are keen to maintain the transatlantic link to the US through Nato. Instead, the WEU would perform peace-keeping tasks, help in crisis management by, for instance evacuating civilians, and could be involved in Gulf war-type conflicts, assisting a regional ally against aggression.

The US supports a greater European role in defence, which would help relieve some pressure on defence spending. It is opposed to anything that would undermine Nato but believes the British plans would not. With the US increasingly unwilling to become involved in peace-keeping or regional conflicts, the EU may find itself increasingly on its own if there are wars on its doorstep in Eastern Europe or the Mediterranean that fall short of a threat to US interests.

The WEU staff would be boosted and it would be given an organisation similar to Nato's civilian and military structure. It would be able to call on forces from all member-states to make up task forces, and could use Nato infrastructure (pipelines, transport aircraft and ships and communications) in a crisis. Nato and the WEU are already preparing a way of doing this, called the Combined Joint Task Forces.

The British ideas will not appeal to EU states that want a real European army, integrated into the EU. But of five states that commented on the British plans last weekend, only one wanted more; the rest were approving. France, a keen supporter of a European defence identity, has backed tighter links between the EU and the WEU but is also keen to keep sovereign control.

The ideas must be approved by governments of the 15 EU states in an inter-governmental conference due to be held next year.

Mr Hurd said after the meeting that he was convinced the British ideas would serve as the basis for a final decision and, because Britain is the pivotal state in defence matters in the EU, other EU foreign ministers agree.

The more federally minded ministers will want to go further. The WEU is due to revise its treaty in 1998, so that may be an opportunity to take defence integration a little further. By that time, the neutral states - all engaged in a debate on their future security policies - may be closer to the WEU. And Nato is likely to be in a process of complete transformation, with new members from Central and Eastern Europe on the way.