Britain caught between Nato and EU as Rumsfeld flies in

The Government was last night battling to calm American fears over its deal on European Union defence, ahead of the arrival of Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, in Brussels today for talks at Nato.

A controversial package of measures on defence dominated a meeting in Naples which backed plans for an EU foreign minister, and heard calls for the main issue blocking a deal on a new European constitution to be fudged.

Although it was hailed as a "breakthrough" by France, the text of the defence deal between London, Berlin and Paris has still not been agreed, apparently because Washington has not given the UK the green light to sign up.

Under fire from his critics at home, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, insisted that the plans to build up Europe's defence capabilities would not undermine the transatlantic military alliance.

Mr Straw insisted that he was a "100 per cent signed-up Atlanticist", describing Tony Blair as "200 per cent". But it was clear that American objections could still wreck the deal struck by senior officials in Berlin last week. The Foreign Secretary said: "There is a process of discussion to take place with our partners. This has to be done on a consultative basis."

Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, was reported to have telephoned two EU ministers during the talks at Naples, though Mr Straw said he had last spoken to Mr Powell on Thursday. However it will be Mr Rumsfeld, the Pentagon hawk, rather than the doveish Mr Powell, who will present the main obstacle to the deal under which the EU would gain an operational military planning cell for the first time.

Leaks of the agreement in the French press suggest Franco-German plans for a separate HQ will be scrapped. But the French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, added to the confusion when he said that details were still be discussed and he hoped for the "most ambitious solution".

At their meeting yesterday, the Italian presidency of the EU laid down ground rules under which groups of countries will be able to engage in closer defence co-operation, if they have the capability, by 2007, to intervene in operations of up to four months' duration.

Mr Straw claimed that any one of the 25 present and future EU nations would have veto on the launch of a mission by the smaller group. But that interpretation did not appear to be borne out by a new protocol circulated by the Italian presidency last night.

The meeting failed to solve any of the key outstanding issues which are blocking agreement on the constitution, due to be finalised at a summit on 12-13 December. But it moved several steps closer to a series of likely compromises and backed a plan for an EU foreign minister combining the roles of Javier Solana, the foreign policy representative appointed by member states, and Chris Patten, the European Commissioner for external relations.

The UK still objects to the term "foreign minister" but the weakness of his opposition was illustrated by the fact that Mr Straw used the term himself. The big blockage rests with Spain and Poland which have both rejected proposals to abolish member states' weighted votes in EU decision-making, agreed in Nice in 2000, which favour them disproportionately to their population size.

Mr Straw pressed for a delay on a decision on a new system, because the 2000 Nice Treaty voting plan is legally bound to stay in place until 2009. He argued: "It's only 2003 now, why do we have to have an unnecessary argument about this? Why not have a rendez-vous clause [delaying the decision until a later point] for somewhere closer to 2009, and in the light of experience we can then decide whether Nice is working or it's not working." His suggestion that this plan was being floated by the Italian presidency drew a rebuff from Italy's foreign minister, Franco Frattini. He said: "We have not spoken in terms of a rendez-vous clause. That would be totally mistaken." But he did say that, with the system being in place until 2009, "there will be a chance to see whether it works".

Germany is determined to get a deal on a new system outlined in the draft constitution under which decisions would need the support of 50 per cent of countries representing 60 per cent of the EU population. But Germany's Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, said he left Naples "more concerned" about divisions. "There is the question whether the enlarged Europe will meet the challenges or fall back."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower