Europe keeps silent on veiled US threats

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EUROPEAN officials yesterday failed to rise to veiled threats that the United States would link a failure of the Gatt world trade talks to a further reduction of America's military presence in Europe.

Raymond Seitz, the US ambassador to London, said on Monday that were Gatt to fail, 'it will be more difficult in Congress to say that while trading relationships with Europe have taken a tumble, nevertheless we should spend X amount of our defence budget on substantial military presence on the Continent.' He repeated the message in an interview on Tuesday.

Officials said that, on the one hand, the comments were understandable rhetoric, possibly on direct instructions from Washington, as the 15 December US deadline on Gatt draws nearer; but on the other, they reflected the reality that the US would in the long term reduce further its presence in Europe.

President Bill Clinton has said he will bring down the number of US troops in Europe - more than 300,000 during the Cold War - to 100,000. Although for now Europe remained a key strategic investment, 'I think they'll swing away from that,' said one defence analyst. 'There ain't no votes in Frankfurt or Heidelberg.'

The linkage between trade and security issues is likely to become of increasing importance, officials in Brussels say. The city that hosts both the main institutions of the European Union and Nato is acutely aware of the longer-term significance of the breakdown of Gatt negotiations.

In the short term, the Clinton administration has reassured its Western allies over its place in the alliance. The US has said repeatedly that both the level and quality of its commitment to Europe remain vital, though it is now accepted that troop numbers will drop as a result of the end of the Cold War. It is also happy to see the creation of a European security and defence identity.

Les Aspin, the Defense Secretary, Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, and Joan Spero, Under- Secretary of State, have all referred to the Clinton administration's focus on keeping the US prosperous. They have also pointed out that trade ties and security ties are closely interlinked. Uncertainty over the strength of US commitment comes from fears that congressional and public opinion will drift away from the alliance.

Nato 'needs to demonstrate to the American people that it is going to be a net benefit, not a net burden,' Stanley Sloan, a specialist from the Congressional Research Service, told a meeting in Washington last week.

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