Europe's big battalions begin to march together

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The Independent Online
While France was preparing for a revolution in its armed forces and defence industry yesterday, Michael Portillo, the British Secretary of State for Defence, and his German counterpart, Volker Ruhe, showed signs of resolving differences on European defence matters when they met in London.

Events on both sides of the Channel show that, piece by piece, Europe is getting its act together on defence. Until now, discussion of a "European defence identity" has meant little in real terms but Britain, Germany and France, the main West European military powers, are keen to develop the idea further before the EU Inter-Governmental Conference, which starts next month.

Hitherto, British reservations about weakening Nato, French unwillingness to work through the alliance and German restrictions on allowing troops to serve abroad have hampered such a development. Britain, however, has given increasing weight to proposals for giving more of a role to the Western European Union, the 10-member body linked to both the EU and Nato, especially in operations outside Europe.

France has rejoined some of Nato's military bodies and Germany has troops in Croatia. Britain has normally been wary of European initiatives in this area, but yesterday's meeting was more optimistic. Mr Ruhe ruled out the idea of a European army, which Mr Portillo is known to oppose. "It must be a coalition of the willing," said the German minister. "You can't by a majority decision decide to send somebody else's soldiers into battle."

Yesterday's French developments take the process a step further. The nearest thing to a "European army" at the moment is the Eurocorps, which has contingents from France, Germany, Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg. It is useless for the new "intervention" operations outside Europe. Pierre Lellouche, President Jacques Chirac's adviser, has suggested it must be revamped into a "European rapid-intervention force". It has been speculated that, as part of its reforms, France will withdraw its armoured division from the force and replace it with something more suitable for intervention outside Central Europe.

The whole French Army is being reconfigured for rapid intervention. Conscription, the core of the French military system since the first levy en masse in 1793, is likely to be phased out, achieving the necessary reduction. France's armed forces now include 189,000 conscripts, who cannot be forced to serve outside France. Troops in Bosnia, Africa and elsewhere are volunteers.

The reforms, which reflect the new world order and the need for rapidly deployable high-quality forces, also reflect the movement towards a unified European defence policy and greater French Nato participation. They also demonstrate Paris's intention to play an increasing part in the alliance and to co-operate with the US as well as in some sort of European defence structure. France can therefore shed some of the burden of defending itself in Europe while concentrating on intervention operations worldwide. Mr Portillo said yesterday that Europe should be able to do the "simpler military tasks" such as peace-keeping, guarding humanitarian aid and disaster relief on its own, and that this would gain favour in the US. Mr Ruhe added: "The best way to keep the Americans in Europe into the next century is to do more on our own."

However, Phil Gordon, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said yesterday: "The Americans want a strong, united and capable Europe but only a Europe that does what the Americans want them to," a view widely shared in the strategic-studies community.