EU may take over from Nato in Macedonia

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The Independent Online

Europe is moving to fill the security vacuum due to be left in Macedonia when Nato troops end their mission at the end of the month, under plans to be discussed by European Union foreign ministers this weekend.

The Western-backed peace process in Macedonia survived a crucial vote in the country's parliament yesterday, clearing the way for Nato troops, including up to 1,900 British soldiers, to begin a second round of collecting arms from Albanian rebels.

But with Nato's Operation Essential Harvest due to end on 26 September, a frenzy of diplomatic activity was sparked by a proposal from the EU's special envoy, Francois Léotard, for a 1,500-strong European-led force to take responsibility from that date.

The move would be the clearest statement yet of the EU's defence and diplomatic ambitions in the region, although any new force would still depend heavily on Nato support. Mr Léotard's plan has strong French backing but has been greeted with some caution by Britain and Germany.

The EU is setting up its own rapid reaction force, but this will not be operational until the end of the year and still has no formal agreement with Nato to use the alliance's military assets.

The Skopje parliament's vote defused immediate fears that the peace process could unravel, leaving Nato troops caught up in fighting. The parliamentary debate dragged on over five days, as MPs condemned the deal, under which the Albanian minority will be granted new rights. The rebels have agreed to disarm in return. In the event, MPs voted 91-19 in favour of the general terms of the plan ­ well clear of the two-thirds majority needed to pass the vote.

But Macedonia is not safe yet. Two further parliamentary votes are needed to pass Albanian rights into law. And there is still a potential for violence. The biggest problems may come if Nato troops leave.

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