Europe seeks alliance to bind US closer

Nato expansion tops talks agenda, writes Richard Dowden, Diplomatic Edi tor
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The Independent Online
While Britain yesterday squabbled about what sort of coinage it is to have in the future, the real fate of Europe was being decided elsewhere. In Washington President Bill Clinton and Chancellor Helmut Kohl met to discuss the future of Europe and Nato.

The pre-eminence of Germany as the leading European power was emphasised by Richard Holbrooke, the US Assistant Secretary of State, when he referred to the "special relationship" as he welcomed Chancellor Kohl to Washington.

Top of the agenda was the expansion of Nato and its relationship with Russia. There is barely disguised panic in Europe that the United States is turning inwards and away from Europe and a realisation that, at the moment, European military capability is crippled without an American presence. In the aftermath of Chechnya these anxieties are compounded by fears of a paranoid and aggressive Russia. These perceptions have transformed discussions about the expansion of Nato from an intellectual debate into amatter of urgency.

In an attempt to bind the US into Europe, Chancellor Kohl called for a new "transatlantic alliance" going beyond Nato to include economic and trade issues. He is trying to persuade the administration, but more importantly Congress, that the US has commonvalues with the Europeans over and above common security interests.

The idea of a transatlantic pact to bind America and Europe together in a union which will include monetary policy, trade and other economic matters has emerged as a common European theme. At the annual security review seminar in Munich last weekend, Malcolm Rifkind, the Defence Secretary, said: "Defence issues alone do not offer a broad enough foundation for the edifice we need." Going beyond Foreign Office thinking on the subject, he has recently called for an Atlantic Assembly of Senators, Congressmen and European parliamentarians to provide a forum for debate of common interests.

Surprisingly, France has also been pushing for a European defence structure. Last weekend however, Alain Juppe, the French Foreign Minister, asked: "Must we once again reaffirm that this [US] presence in Europe is indispensable to our security and will continue to be so?"

Who else will be allowed to join Nato was the other burning issue in Washington yesterday. The US is anxious that Germany is still not willing to commit troops for peace-keeping or peace-enforcing in other parts of the world, and there are concerns that German passivity is leaving a power vacuum in central Europe. Germany's answer is to expand Nato rapidly eastwards but this is counter-balanced by the fear of upsetting Russia. Boris Yeltsin, the Russian President, has called the expansion of Nato an attempt to impose a Cold Peace on the region, while Andrei Kozyrev, his Foreign Minister, told a Western diplomat recently that while he had no problem with Nato, the Russian people regarded it as an alien force.

The US administration is under pressure from Congress to set a timetable to include Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, but a senior US official recently travelled through Europe reassuring allies that Washington was not trying to force thepace.

Nato has only just begun to examine the practicalities and, according to William Perry, the US Defense Secretary, the study will take a year. Britain's view is that the armies of candidate members should be brought up to Nato standards before they join, while Germany believes they should be admitted quickly and then integrated into Nato. But the central issue is what threat Nato is supposed to be facing and whether rapid expansion will trigger the very Russian aggression it is supposed to contain.

How these vital issues will be dealt with in Washington at present is unclear. One senior US diplomat said in London last week that the urgency of the Europeans on these issues was not matched in the US where interest in the outside world is not high on anyone's agenda. "The most important political issue here is immigration," he said.