EU defence blueprint threatens fresh feud with US

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The Independent Online

Tensions between the European Union and the United States over defence burst into the open yesterday when America called a special meeting in Nato next Monday to discuss Europe's plans for military co-operation.

The move followed frank exchanges within the alliance on Wednesday when the US made known its concerns over the direction of the EU's plans to boost defence cooperation.

Nato sources said the informal meeting of ambassadors would discuss the direction of relations between Nato and the EU amid a climate of growing concern in Washington.

The Americans are particularly concerned that some European Nato allies seem to have cut off communication prior to agreement among EU member states on defence cooperation in a new EU constitution. That could effectively present the US with a fait accompli, they say.

The news emerged as Tony Blair held talks with his EU counterparts in Brussels. Britain went out of its way to reassure the US that closer coordination of EU defence would not undermine the transatlantic alliance.

At a meeting in Berlin last month Mr Blair agreed to drop his opposition to "structured cooperation" under which groups of countries could forge ahead with joint ties.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said: "We are intending to make sure that nothing undermines the pre-eminence of Nato as the guarantor of the territorial defence of Europe." France and Germany are expected to drop a push for a mutual defence guarantee in the EU in exchange for British backing for structured cooperation.

Last night Tony Blair met Jacques Chirac, the French President, Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor and Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian Premier, to discuss defence ahead of a wider dinner discussion on the issue. France, Germany and Belgium have pioneered plans for closer EU military cooperation.

The defence initiative, championed by France and Germany, prompted a heated exchange with the US at Nato on Wednesday. EU diplomats say there is also some concern within the Government, with the Ministry of Defence increasingly concerned about the the EU's military ambitions.

Meanwhile at the summit, Italy increased pressure on Europe's divided leaders to settle deep differences over an EU constitution, imposing a new deadline by promising to put "final" proposals on the table next month.

With no sign of progress in negotiations yesterday the Italians, who hold the EU's rotating presidency, also threatened to stage another summit in November to try to narrow the differences.

But Britain insisted it would veto any treaty rather than cross any of its negotiating "red lines", as Downing Street pledged: "We are not going to accept an arbitrary deadline."

Yesterday's meeting in Brussels underlined the need for a new phase of serious negotiation, as leaders from 25 nations simply repeated well-known national positions.

EU leaders are negotiating on a draft European Union constitution drawn up by Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president. Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's Prime Minister, wants agreement by mid-December.

Franco Frattini, Italy's Foreign Minister, said "the idea is to come up with the final proposal by the end of November" one which would not accept "a watered down compromise".

Although no decision had been taken, Mr Frattini threatened EU leaders with the prospect of another summit. Having launched the talks at a summit in Rome on 4 October, and convening yesterday and today, the EU leaders are already scheduled to hold another meeting in Brussels on 16 and 17 December.

But agreement on the constitution is bogged down in disputes which pit large versus small member states, and Spain and Poland against most of the other EU nations.

Madrid and Warsaw are locked in a bitter dispute over plans to scrap a voting system agreed at a summit in Nice in December 2000.

Both nations fear that they will lose influence. Meanwhile a host of small nations oppose plans which would strip them of the automatic right to send a full, voting European Commissioner to Brussels. The EU's minnows believe this would undermine their influence.

Today France and Germany, keen to see the draft constitution adopted with as few changes as possible, will take the symbolic step of speaking with a single voice as M. Chirac represents Mr Schröder who has returned to Berlin. With gloom spreading about the lack of progress, the European Commissioner responsible for the EU constitution, Michel Barnier, appealed for a spirit of greater cooperation. The time for stating national positions was over and the "time for negotiating a dynamic compromise is beginning," he said.

Constitutional Summit: Where member states stand on four key issues

How should laws be voted on?

Giscard's proposals

Wants to scrap a complex system of weighted votes. Laws would need the backing of 50 per cent of states, representing 60 per cent of the EU population, a plan called "double majority voting".

Large states' position

The "big four" ­ Germany, France, the UK and Italy ­ like M. Giscard's idea. Spain and Poland (which joins the EU next year but can veto the constitution) hate it because of the link to population.

Small states' position

Most are willing to go along with M. Giscard's proposal on the basis that it is simpler for voters to understand, and will help to make decision-making easier with the EU set to gain 10 new nations.

United Kingdom's position

Backs the Giscard plan as simpler. As a big member state, Britain feelsprotected. Wants other changes to the Giscard text so is happy to see other nations scrapping while it sits on the sidelines.

Who should sit on the Commission?

Giscard's proposals

The European Commission, which has 20 members, could become unwieldy with 10 countries due to join next year. M. Giscard wants a total of 15 voting commissioners, rotated among all members.

Large states' position

They back M. Giscard's plan because any other system will become unmanageable. They are not as worried about losing influence in Brussels because they can throw their weight around when needed.

Small states' position

They hate the idea of losing the right to send a voting commissioner, even for a short period and worry that they will lose clout to the big boys. Also say that it will weaken the European Commission.

United Kingdom's position

The UK is relaxed about a smaller commission. It believes its voice will still be heard in Brussels. Suggestions of a weakened commission will hardly alarm the British Government.

Should there be powers of veto?

Giscard's proposals

M. Giscard wants to extend majority voting to loosen the EU's sclerotic decision-making procedure. But the veto would remain for sensitive subjects such as tax, foreign policy and defence.

Large states' position

All the big states, except for the UK, back M. Giscard's plan. France and Germany argue that it is not ambitious enough. Paris is likely to press for more majority voting on tax and social security policy.

Small states' position

They also back M. Giscard by and large, although the Republic of Ireland opposes a plan to extend majority voting to certain limited areas of tax and social security policy.

United Kingdom's position

Objects to plans to extend majority voting, combat cross-border tax fraud, social security arrangements for migrants, harmonisation of some criminal legal procedure and decisions on EU budget.

Should there be a Foreign Minister?

Giscard's proposals

Wants to create this new post, combining roles now occupied by Chris Patten, commissioner for external relations, and Javier Solana, the foreign policy chief who represents member states.

Large states' position

They back the idea in principle but are split on how integrated the new foreign minister should be into the European Commission. Germany wants a strong link. The UK and France are less keen.

Small states' position

Most like the idea of a European foreign minister, to give the EU a more powerful voice in the world and help to answer the famous question: "Who does one call if one wants to speak to the EU"?

United Kingdom's position

Doesn't oppose the plan in principle but is worried that the new foreign minister will be too closely embedded in the commission. Instead it wants the post firmly in the grip of the member states.