Nato calms US fears of European defence HQ

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Nato's European nations last night defused a rift with the US over plans to boost EU defence but avoided giving any specific guarantees.

At a meeting the US was reassured that nobody wanted to undermine Nato, which has ensured European security for 50 years. However, the vexed issue, of a separate EU military planning headquarters has yet to be decided.

The meeting came after complaints from Nicholas Burns, the US ambassador to Nato who said one part of the EU plan was the "most serious threat to the future of Nato".

Yesterday Jamie Shea, Nato's chief spokesman, said that "no-one is trying to harm Nato". Privately some diplomats said the meeting was "not very useful".

However it appeared to have calmed the US, which fears a fait accompli when EU leaders finalise a constitution for Europe which includes defence.

Efforts to reassure the Americans began at last Friday's EU summit with Tony Blair and the French president, Jacques Chirac. Today discussions continue between EU and Nato ambassadors.

In private some diplomats blame the crisis on the US due to its insistence on using ad hoc coalitions, rather than Nato.

The row with Washington follows a meeting in Berlin last month where Mr Blair agreed to drop his opposition to "structured cooperation" within the EU.

In exchange France and Germany, the most enthusiastic advocates of EU defence, are expected to drop support for a defence pledge among European nations.

Britain accepts the creation of an EU strategic military planning cell, but nota command headquarters separate from Nato.

The ambassador of Italy, which holds the EU presidency, said it was examining all the possible options for a military headquarters. Jerzy Nowak, Poland's ambassador to Nato, said that the discussions would not threaten Nato's future.