France moves closer to rejoining Nato

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The Independent Online

France has taken a step towards rejoining the Nato military alliance with a series of proposals for closer relations between the organisation and the European Union.

In recent weeks both President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Defence Minister, Hervé Morin, have spoken about the possibility of ending four decades of French isolation from the US-dominated military command of the western alliance.

In what is seen as the first concrete step in that direction, the French government has sent a document to the alliance's political headquarters in Brussels proposing four ways of sharing information and strategic thinking between Nato and the EU foreign and defence policies.

In its written proposals to Nato, Paris suggests that the EU high representative for foreign affairs should regularly brief the Nato Atlantic Council. The secretary general of Nato should also be invited to appear before EU foreign ministers. France is also calling for regular working contacts between the Nato and EU bodies which consider arms procurement. It also wants new procedures for the exchange of information between the Nato and EU crisis and disaster co-ordination agencies. France is to present its ideas to a meeting of the EU political and security committee on Friday.

All of these ideas may seem merely technical but they represent almost a U-turn from previous French hostility to EU-Nato links.

It is a radical shift from the approach of President Jacques Chirac, and previous French leaders, who objected to closer links between the two Brussels-based organisations since President Charles de Gaulle abruptly pulled France out of Nato in 1966 and ejected the Nato military headquarters from French soil.

In the past decade, France, with on-off support from Britain, has sought to build an EU defence and security policy in parallel with Nato. Paris is now saying that the two organisations should work hand in hand.

De Gaulle's decision positioned France as a western-aligned, but not slavishly pro-American, nation. This has been the bedrock of French foreign policy ever since and is unlikely to change completely, even if France rejoins Nato. President Sarkozy has suggested that he will re- position French foreign policy to be neither systematically pro-American nor knee-jerk anti- American. Washington and other Nato countries, including Britain, have broadly welcomed the French moves but some suspicion remains.

Washington officials are said to fear that M. Sarkozy is trying to build up EU defence policy as a cuckoo within the Nato nest, rather than a rival outside it.

President Chirac made tentative overtures to rejoin the military wing of the alliance in 1997. These foundered because the US objected to a demand from France for a senior military command covering the Mediterranean. President Sarkozy is likely to make a similar demand.

The French military has been favourable to rejoining the military part of the western alliance for years. Army chiefs in particular say that France has suffered by its exclusion from Nato strategic thinking and the development of military command systems.