Washington has begun to consult with its allies over how to speed up the process to include some of the central European countries.
A working group has been set up under Richard Holbrooke, US Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, to study the issue. But British sources in London and Brussels yesterday said they were surprised and unhappy that Washington had chosen to force the pace.
The British sources said their impression had been that Partnership for Peace, the scheme developed at January's Nato summit, was sufficient for the moment to prepare the way for new members. US officials say that the Holbrooke study is intended to clarify the 'how, not the who and when' of enlargement. Issues of cost, military structure, regulations and technical matters should all be dealt with, US officials say.
British sources regard the move as a US policy reversal, although US and Nato officials said in January that there would be more movement this autumn. They were also surprised by comments from US officials in the New York Times that the Partnership scheme - a US initiative - was 'inadequate'.
Nato itself is at pains to argue in defence of the scheme, which attracted criticism from Central Europe.
The threat of a rift over enlargement comes at the same time as growing differences emerge between the US and Europe over the war in Bosnia.
Britain, normally a close ally of the United States, is increasingly finding common ground with its allies in Europe in proposing a common European defence policy. Though the Government is at pains to say that this must be done within Nato, and that the intention is not to exclude or oppose the US, it is clear that the widening transatlantic rift is prodding Britain towards a more European policy.
British officials are working out ways to create a real 'European pillar', something that Europe has long tried to create but failed to achieve. The fact that Britain is taking the lead on the issue shows that earlier reservations about security integration have waned.
The Independent reported last month that Britain was ready to accept the creation of a European defence policy. Thinking on the subject has moved rapidly in London, with a series of initiatives in the pipeline over the next year. They involve turning the Western European Union (WEU), a 10-member body linked to both Nato and the EU, into a real defence organisation that represents European security interests and has its own forces.
Speaking at a The Hague conference yesterday, a British diplomat, Roland Smith, proposed the WEU should develop as a policy-forming European 'club' within Nato. 'The WEU should operate not only as a vehicle for European defence activity, but as a means for the expression of European views within the alliance,' he said.
This would mean developing a single European voice alongside the US, which has dominated Nato. 'If it is accepted that a European defence identity is both desirable and compatible with a healthy alliance, it follows that the European voice should from time to time be articulated more clearly within the alliance's board of management,' said Mr Smith.
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