The European Union has declared that its 60,000-strong rapid-reaction force is ready for action, despite warnings from Britain that military shortfalls make it capable of only light peace-keeping tasks.
Yesterday's announcement said the EU's 15 states had met a pledge to set up a crisis-intervention force, designed to boost Europe's global clout, which should be able to deploy to trouble spots within 60 days.
The text described the force as capable of the "full range" of peace-keeping operations, but it said gaps in military capability "limited and constrained" the EU's ability to deploy quickly, to defend itself if a conflict intensified or to handle more than one mission at a time.
Pressure to create the rapid-reaction force came to a head after the Kosovo war in 1999 when the military disparity between Europe and the United States was laid bare. If anything, that gap has since increased, driven by the Pentagon's massive budget and by the 15 EU nations' failure to co-ordinate their hardware purchases.
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, pointed out yesterday that the US military machine was "more effective than the next 27 countries together".
Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, argued that the war in Iraq illustrated the scale of the task confronting the EU. Britain, he said, "had to deploy 45,000 troops in 70 days" but the EU was committed to the more demanding task of putting 60,000 soldiers into the field in 60 days. "We still have a great deal to do to meet the shortfall in capabilities that are necessary to meet the most demanding Petersberg [peace-keeping and crisis intervention] tasks," said Mr Hoon, who argued that the EU was not yet ready to perform tasks at the tougher end of the scale.
"We still lack the key elements of intelligence, communications and, crucially, heavy lift transport," he added.
His message was reinforced by the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, who said there were still shortfalls in the "capability objectives". He said: "It is hardly time to rest on our laurels. A lot more remains to be done as a matter of urgency."
Mr Solana said the EU would consider sending a brigade of troops to support an emergency UN force in the eastern Congo, where fighting has left hundreds dead and thousands of people homeless and hungry.
Although defence ministers committed themselves to continue efforts to upgrade military capability, the reality is that most European governments are already strapped for cash.
Italy, France, Belgium and Germany argued that the restrictions applied to members of the eurozone should be relaxed to permit more defence spending. They said military investment should not be counted as part of a state's budget deficit. Under the rules laid down for membership of the euro, the deficit must be lower than 3 per cent of gross domestic product.
- More about: