Britain to take leading role in European military force

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The Independent Online

The drive by the EU to become a military force will take a big step forward today when all 25 nations agree to create battle groups of elite troops able to reach trouble spots such as Darfur within 15 days.

The move, which means forging multinational teams of soldiers, is part of an ambitious agenda of boosting the EU's military and crisis intervention capabilities to give it more clout on the world stage.

Britain will play a leading role and, along with France, guarantee to make one of the battle groups - each of which will have around 1,500 troops - available and on standby for the first half of next year.

Today's deal underlines the progress made on EU defence since Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac agreed at a summit in St Malo in 1998 to push for military co-operation.

Initially viewed with extreme suspicion in Washington, the concept has now been accepted, with US policymakers aware of the benefit it will have in helping reduce over-stretched American military commitments. Next month the EU will take over its first big military operation, when it assumes the task of peacekeeping in Bosnia from Nato and takes control of around 7,000 European soldiers.

But the EU has also been working hard to forge an effective rapid reaction capability for crisis intervention and humanitarian tasks. The force is not being considered for a role in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East.

Originally the aim was to have 60,000 troops available, but that target has now been refined to try to ensure well-trained soldiers can be airlifted quickly to trouble-spots, particularly in Africa. One such EU operation, comprised largely of French soldiers, has been undertaken in Bunia in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Each unit will have its own logistical support, including aircraft to transport them and communications and logistical backing to keep them in the field for between 30 and 60 days.

Every battle group will be associated with a headquarters in one of the member states which would run that particular operation, rather than the EU's embryonic military planning cell in Brussels.

Only the UK and France are able to provide this sort of quick reaction force, but Italy, Germany and Spain will develop the means to do the same.

Germany says it wants to make up to 8,000 troops available for the battle group concept, though some could also be called on for Nato's Response Force.

Meanwhile, the plan will mean that multi-national teams will be assembled and train together to create mixed-nationality battle groups.

One EU military official said: "All EU countries have armies with their own national battle groups ready to deploy on their soil. This is an acknowledgement that we need something that can conduct expeditionary operations, something that can, at short notice, mount flash to bang operations when the Council of Ministers says so."

With several neutral states taking part in the project, most diplomats assume that operations undertaken will be backed by a UN resolution.