Britain has, for the first time, accepted the idea of an independent operational military headquarters for the EU - apparently without squaring its plans with the US.
Leaks of an accord struck by London, Paris and Berlin, published in the French press yesterday, embarrassed the Government, catching the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, off guard at an EU meeting. The document, which EU foreign ministers expected to see last night, was kept under wraps despite the fact that most of its contents appeared in the French daily newspaper Le Monde.
Asked if the problem was the lack of agreement with the US, a British official replied: "We are in the process of discussing with allies and partners." Behind the scenes, diplomats have been struggling to convince the different players in Washington that their accord with Paris and Berlin does not threaten Nato. Amid disarray last night, they did not rule out the prospect that the document may have to be changed.
Months of disagreement over the plan had widened transatlantic divisions, with the US worried that a new EU defence capability would undermine the transatlantic alliance.
Under the new deal, France and Germany will win an operational military planning centre for autonomous EU missions, something always opposed by the UK on the basis that it would duplicate the functions of Nato.
The three-nation paper says the autonomous operational cell will be in Brussels, where the EU already has a strategic military planning facility. In exchange, Paris and Berlin will shelve moves to set up a new planning centre in the Brussels suburb of Tervuren - an initiative set out during the Iraq war which became a symbol of the rift with the US. That concession was vital for the UK, which feared that France, Germany and a clutch of other nations would go ahead with Tervuren without the British.
British officials emphasised that the draft proposal was acceptable because it did not include the French plan for a standing EU defence headquarters outside Nato. The paper agreed by Britain, France and Germany says that the "main options" for running autonomous EU operations would involve national HQs in the UK, France, Germany, Italy or Greece.
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