US drives wedge between EU leaders over defence plans

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The Independent Online

Europe's leaders were at odds yesterday over how to achieve closer EU defence co-operation, amid efforts to calm US fears that their plans threaten the Nato alliance.

On Monday Nato ambassadors will debate their relations with the EU after complaints from the US about the risk to the transatlantic alliance posed by plans for a military "hard core" in Europe.

Yesterday Tony Blair sought to calm talk of a transatlantic crisis, saying he backed "strong European defence, but nothing whatever must put at risk our essential defence guarantees within Nato". Mr Blair also quashed speculation that he is softening his opposition to holding a referendum in the UK on the EU constitution.

At a meeting in Berlin last month the UK shifted ground by accepting the principle of "structured co-operation" whereby a group of nations can forge ahead with military operations.

But the defence row took hold on Wednesday at Nato when the US ambassador, Nicholas Burns, launched a blistering attack on the initiative championed by France and Germany, reportedly describing it as the "most serious threat to the future of Nato".

The dispute came to a head on Thursday at the EU summit during a debate in which the Irish premier, Bertie Ahern, said there had been "plenty of tensions". Mr Blair won support from several countries including Spain and Poland in his insistence that the defence plans must not undermine Nato.

At the heart of the dispute is the issue of whether the EU should have a planning and a command centre autonomous of Nato. Britain will accept the first of these propositions, but rejects the idea of an operations headquarters. Instead it wants to use either national facilities or Nato's headquarters in Mons, Belgium.

France and Germany are expected to drop a push for a mutual defence guarantee to be written into the EU constitution in exchange for British backing for structured co-operation.

President Jacques Chirac soothed the fears of the EU's smaller nations, who fear exclusion, saying that the defence plan will be "totally open to all". He also said that "European defence without Britain is not going to be coherent", and added that the plans would be consistent with Europe's "engagement with Nato".

Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, added that nobody wanted to damage the relationship between the EU and Nato, a message echoed by Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. "The European defence project must complement Nato, which has been the pillar of European defence and must continue in this role," Mr Berlusconi said.

Italy, which holds the EU presidency, hopes to get agreement by the middle of next month on a European constitution based on a draft compiled by the former French president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

Several countries, including Denmark, Spain, the Netherlands and Ireland are committed to a plebiscite on the new constitution, but rumours that Britain might join them have now been firmly scotched by Mr Blair. He said: "There will not be a referendum. The reason for this is that the constitution does not fundamentally change the relationship between the UK and the EU."

In discussions on the constitution yesterday's meeting failed to make any progress on the issues that divide the EU.

M. Giscard's proposals on majority voting continue to cause dissension, with Spain and Poland threatening to veto the constitution if they are adopted. Smaller European states are also concerned about their representation on the European Commission.

In most respects the summit was low key, and EU leaders rejected proposals to set quotas for the acceptance of immigrants.