The Nato summit on 10 January, called to define the role of the alliance in the post-Cold War era, could be the occasion that led to France's return, they suggested. Paris withdrew from Nato's integrated command structure in 1966 under the late President Charles de Gaulle, forcing the alliance to transfer its headquarters to Brussels from Paris.
A return to the fold, however, would be possible only if the initiative came from all Nato states and was not just 'a de facto decision laid on the table by our American friends'. 'We are ready to participate if there is a real will to adapt,' the sources said. They did not define the changes required, but talked of the need for greater European involvement in the continent's defence.
Though France has been a full military partner with other Nato members in the Gulf war and former Yugoslavia - French troops make the biggest contribution to the United Nations force in Bosnia - absence from the integrated command has deprived it of a voice in alliance decision-making.
Earlier this week, other senior French defence sources said that working with the United States in the Gulf had brought home to the French military how useful the US as allies and the Nato command structure were to European defence.
France has promoted the Western European Union (WEU) as the basis of a 'European pillar' for the continent's defence (it was under a WEU banner that European navies first started to patrol the Adriatic in the Yugoslav crisis). 'But in effect we were just using the Nato structure,' the defence sources said, 'and you can ask, 'Why create something new when there is an existing structure that works?' '
Nato's European members had to plan for the continent's security as the US reduced its forces in Europe, the sources said. The Americans were carrying out 'not just a physical withdrawal but also a political withdrawal', but at present the alliance was 'fully effective only if the US is involved'.
They conceded that the concept of a more autonomous European defence effort was causing 'reticence' in some EU and Nato states, particularly Britain and the Netherlands, but emphasised that 'the Europeans must be able to act on their own'.
They pointed out that 'Eurocorps', which is assembling 40,000 French, German and Belgian troops (a Spanish addition is expected soon) for Nato missions, had been conceived by the French in the hope that Germany's constitutional limits on use of its troops outside the Nato area would soon be lifted.
The French government's 'white Ebook' on the nation's defence needs, due to be published in FebTHER write errorruary, envisaged six 'scenarios', they said, including crises in Europe, regional conflicts outside Europe, crises in French overseas territories, and 'the resurgence of a major threat'. In the last category, the sources made it clear that Russia and Ukraine could be a concern.
'Russia will remain a big nuclear and conventional power in as big a strategic space as possible,' they said. Though nuclear weapons in Ukraine were not a great concern in themselves, the country was 'drifting', and it was using the nuclear issue 'to attract the world's attention as Russia strangles it economically'.
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