Nato seeks to bring France into the fold: Plan to combine alliance and non-alliance forces

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NATO is drawing up plans that would help to reintegrate France into the alliance's military structures, according to officials in Brussels.

Combined task forces involving both Nato and non-Nato forces were proposed by the United States at a meeting of defence ministers in Germany last month. These would allow the integration of alliance and non-alliance forces into 'packages' for acting outside the Nato area - for peace-keeping and crisis management.

They would also combine different service arms - air, sea and land forces. These forces could help bridge the gap between the alliance and France, which remains outside the integrated military structure, though it is a member of the alliance. They could serve under the command of the Western European Union, the defence body linked to the European Union, according to senior alliance sources.

Security sources in Paris say that the idea has interested the French government, but added that it might be working on ideas of its own to parallel the US initiative. Manfred Worner, Nato's Secretary-General and a former West German defence minister, is known to be keen to bring France back into the fold. France has made conciliatory noises over the past two years about building closer ties with Nato, but no concrete decisions have been made.

Senior alliance sources say that the issue is being dealt with by Nato's Senior Political Committee, which contains representatives of all 16 member nations, reinforced by military and defence experts from each. France has been at pains not to attend the alliance's public military meetings. It was invited to the meeting in Germany last month, but declined to attend.

The Combined Joint Task Forces are partly a recognition that with Nato's main task - the defence of Western Europe - in abeyance, it must seek out new ways of doing business and new methods of keeping its military structures engaged.

Senior alliance military officials in Brussels yesterday told journalists that the alliance expected to see further defence cuts as a result of the Cold War's end. Defence ministers meet in Brussels next month to discuss the implications of this for force structures, and are likely to discuss the task force idea.

It will also serve as a way of bringing Eastern European countries closer to the West. The US also proposed in Germany that 'Partnerships for Peace' be built with Central and Eastern Europe. This would involve linking these countries with Nato for peace-keeping purposes.

In talks in Warsaw yesterday the French and German foreign ministers suggested that the Central and Eastern European countries might be made associate members of the Western European Union, the EU's embryo defence body. 'We want the WEU to offer association status which would be open to all partners who have signed association agreements with the European Union and for those who will do so in future,' a joint declaration said.