Britain will table plans today designed to end French and German ambitions for a separate EU military structure that could rival Nato.
The British proposal, which is likely to provoke a showdown at a meeting in Rome, would lead to a full-time military planning cell for the EU. But it would make the celll part of Nato and it would be based at the alliance's military headquarters at Mons, Belgium.
The initiative marks a new round in a fierce battle over the future of European defence, which burst into life in April when the leaders of France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg held a summit on the subject in Brussels.
Frustrated by the lack of progress towards a common defence policy, the four countries pledged to set up a joint military planning centre in the Brussels suburb of Tervuren. This is seen as the embryo of an independent EU military structure, which is anathema to Britain because it wants Europe's defence initiative anchored firmly within the transatlantic Nato alliance.
There is already provision for the EU to work out of Nato's Supreme Headquarters Allied Power Europe at Mons, and to co-ordinate joint military actions with Nato from there. One such operation in Macedonia is already under way.
The British plan foresees a permanent planning cell, which would operate full time, rather than case by case. It could also organise independent EU military missions and is being presented as "the alternative" to the centre at Tervuren. At today's gathering of senior officials, Britain is expecting the support of Italy, Spain, Portugal and some nations due to join the EU next year, including Poland.
Critics say that the plan adds little to the arrangements thrashed out in the so-called Berlin plus deal laying out how EU defence would work. "At first glance it is little more than Berlin plus," said a diplomat from one of the "gang of four" countries.
France and Belgium are expected to keep their commitment to the Tervuren planning centre, although one diplomat said that "the British hopelessly overrate what will come from Tervuren". Some in Brussels fear that Britain has an ulterior motive in raising the issue before discussions on the EU's draft constitution, which calls for greater co-operation on defence.
"If the UK opens up the defence element of the constitution then other nations will open other chapters threatening the whole document," said one diplomat.
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