Euro-army set to advance from words to deeds: Franco-German military co-operation is growing into a continental force, writes Steve Crawshaw from Mullheim

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IF YOU see a German soldier in the little town of Mullheim, in south-western Germany, you may - if you are an expert spotter of national military uniforms - notice that something is not quite right. If you see a French soldier in Mullheim, likewise. Both soldiers will be incorrectly dressed, according to national norms. And yet, the sartorial oddities indirectly represent what enthusiasts believe could become an important pillar of a future European defence policy.

Mullheim, in what is known as Dreilandereck - Three-Countries-Corner, where France, Germany and Switzerland meet - contained a French garrison, as part of the Allied troop presence, until German unity in 1990. Now the barracks provide a home for the Franco-German brigade, where the two nations work together, on a daily basis, under alternating French and German command. The Franco-German brigade, in turn, is part of the newly-inaugurated Eurocorps, whose commanders hope that it could be the shape of things to come.

Blending the visual differences between the two armies has been just one of the tasks facing brigade commanders. It was agreed, for example, that Germans in Eurocorps should wear the dark-blue French beret; but the French, in the spirit of Euro-compromise, were told to wear their berets on the left (German- style) instead of on the right. (There is no single Eurocorps uniform, 'for the moment'). More seriously, there is the question of how to standardise equipment.

Language is a challenge, too: the 4,500 members of the Franco-German brigade are all supposed to speak each other's languages. Thus, in theory, a French soldier addresses his German colleagues in German, while the Germans reply in French. This counsel of perfection soon breaks down. Thus, at the guard-post in Mullheim, a German conscript admits that he always speaks German with his French colleagues, since his French is too poor. At Eurocorps headquarters in Strasbourg, across the border from Mullheim, a German soldier greets the visitor's excusez- moi request for directions with a sheepish 'I am sorry, do you speak German?'

Already, Eurocorps is growing beyond its Franco-German embryo. Belgium has signed up - though it caused some consternation when the country's Defence Minister announced that Flemish should be an official Eurocorps language (under a complicated compromise, documents above a certain level will probably be translated into Flemish, but Flemish will be ignored in daily use). In Strasbourg, Belgians, French and Germans now work side by side, under a single command.

Now the Spanish are ready to join: two liaison officers are in the Eurocorps headquarters, and Spain's formal participation is expected this year. Already, there are five flags on Eurocorps desks: the four participating countries, plus the gold-star Euro-flag. There have been expressions of interest from further afield, too. Poland, which had the door shut in its face by Nato this week, has asked if it might be allowed to join the Eurocorps family (answer: don't call us, we'll call you).

Gradually, the Eurocorps is moving from rhetoric to reality. As of this month, Eurocorps commanders say that it is ready to take on humanitarian missions. From July, it will officially be ready for military missions. By 1995, it is due to have 40,000 men at its disposal.

Not all, however, are impressed. Britain regards Eurocorps as mere Franco- German hot air, and has been keen, instead, to sell the idea of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC), under British command and within existing Nato structures. One difference between the two bodies is that the US plays an important role in ARRC, but not in Eurocorps. The Eurocorps commander, General Helmut Willmann, argues: 'I am convinced that ARRC has an important role within Nato - but the Eurocorps is also necessary. The Eurocorps can react when the Americans don't want to be involved. That's the most important thing.' He insists: 'Eurocorps doesn't weaken Nato - it strengthens Nato.'

Crucially, Eurocorps - dreamed up by Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Francois Mitterrand in 1991 - has what General Willmann calls 'a political dimension, which goes beyond the framework of Nato'. It is answerable to the West European Union - which is, in turn, the would-be defence arm of the European Union. Colonel Daniel Bruss, of the Franco-German brigade, argues that Britain, by being so unenthusiastic, is out of step with developments: 'Britain doesn't want to take part in Eurocorps. But Britain is part of Europe, too.'

There are still arguments over how the corps might be used, let alone how big it might eventually become. Some suggest that a co-ordinated European mission might have been appropriate in Somalia, if Eurocorps had been working last year. Bosnia, too, is the kind of conflict where, in theory, Eurocorps could play a role. Here, however, an old problem involving Germany arises, hampering much military planning. The Bonn government has, because of Germany's own history, ruled out the use of German troops in former Yugoslavia. Indeed, German politicians are still arguing over whether German soldiers should be allowed to take part even in humanitarian actions abroad - let alone whether they should be allowed to shoot. In the understated words of one German officer in Mullheim: 'The French have less hang-ups about the armed forces than we Germans do.'

The British argue, not very sotto voce, that the Eurocorps uses up much money that would be better spent elsewhere in Nato. Defenders of Eurocorps insist, however, that its time will yet come. General Willmann says: 'We're creating an instrument of joint European security and defence policy . . . I'm absolutely confident that we will achieve our goal.'

(Photograph omitted)