Rapid reaction units proposed to give clout to European Union foreign policy

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The Independent Online

Britain, France and Germany have laid out plans for a string of EU rapid reaction units equipped for combat in some of the world's most difficult terrain, accelerating the drive for European defence co-operation.

The move, disclosed yesterday to senior EU diplomats, underlines the growing partnership between the three countries whose premiers meet at a summit next week.

The new rapid reaction units are designed to be around 1,500-strong, the size of a battle group, and ready for action at 15 days' notice as of 2007. They should be able to stay in the field for 30 days, although that timescale could be extended to a maximum of four months.

Yesterday's initiative underlines the importance attached by the EU's two biggest defence powers to boosting joint military capabilities as a means of increasing Europe's foreign policy clout. But it also illustrates the importance of the alliance between London, Paris and Berlin, one that has prompted fears among smaller EU countries that they are destined to be dominated by a new triumvirate.

Next week Tony Blair, the French President Jacques Chirac and the German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, will meet in Berlin. They are due to discuss a range of issues, including the EU's stalled efforts to agree a constitution and its moves to revive the moribund Lisbon process which aims to regenerate the European economy. But agreement on the defence strategy would provide evidence that the three-way partnership is producing tangible results. Although France and Germany have taken care to revive their relationship, which they still see as central, Paris and Berlin realise that inclusion of the UK is vital for foreign and defence policy initiatives.

The proposals raise the prospect of much closer co-operation, particularly between the EU's biggest military powers, the UK and France. The two nations would mount joint training for operations in tough environments, such as jungles, mountains or deserts, and put more effort into ensuring that equipment and structures are compatible.

The units will include strategic airlift, artillery, communications and engineering support.

Most operations would be undertaken only with the support of the United Nations, and aim to help peace-keeping and stabilise failed states in European spheres of influence, particularly Africa. The model would be the EU mission in Congo last year led by French troops but with assistance from the UK, Belgium and Sweden.