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Military role for EU opposed by Britain

Security debate: PM puts his faith in European arm of Nato

Defence Correspondent

John Major said yesterday he opposed any direct military role for the European Union. Rather, he wanted the Western European Union to become "operationally capable" of running military operations as soon as possible, and to undertake humanitarian, peace-keeping and crisis management by the end of the year.

The Prime Minister criticised a preoccupation with "institutional tidiness". What mattered was to "shape real events in the real world". In a strongly- worded speech to the Assembly of the Western European Union, the European arm of Nato, he set out his agenda for the EU Inter-Governmental Conference, which starts in Turin next month.

He told the assembly of MPs from WEU states the suggestions that the IGC ought to subordinate the WEU to political direction by the EU would " put institutional tidiness and the illusion of progress before Europe's real security needs".

"Encumbering the Union with military responsibilities would do nothing to enhance the unique contribution that the EU can make to greater regional security through the political and economic instruments available to it, even assuming it were feasible.

"Giving the EU military responsibilities for which it is not equipped would impede the task of extending stability and prosperity to the east, by adding a new obstacle to Central European accession and unnecessarily provoking Russian fears." It would also marginalise non-EU Nato allies.

"Institutional blueprints may look pretty on paper but, as any soldier will tell you, they don't offer much protection when the shells start flying," Mr Major said, in a thinly-disguised attack on the preoccupation with "European security architecture" at the expense of "credible and practical" arrangements that work.

Europe's contribution to Nato should be reinforced, because Nato was "a military alliance and not a debating society". I-For, the peace implementation force in Bosnia, based on Nato, was two-thirds European and ought to be used as a model for the future.

Sometimes, he said, Europe could shoulder the burden of defence "more directly, by mounting smaller-scale operations. Nato heads of government paved the way for this as long ago as January 1994, when they agreed the Combined Joint Task Force concept. We need now to put in place machinery for the political control and planning of such operations".

The CJTF is a headquarters which uses Nato's command structure to run a European operation, not unlike that used for running I-For in Bosnia.

Mr Major referred to the Petersburg declaration of 1992 that the WEU ought to prepare to undertake peace-keeping, humanitarian and crisis management tasks.

"Our objective," he said yesterday, "is that by the end of the year the WEU should be ready to perform a good number of these."

Answering a question from a representative of Estonia, an associate partner of the WEU, Mr Major said he favoured Nato expansion to the east.

To this end, he stressed the importance of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) scheme, which might lead to some Eastern European countries joining the alliance. He said 14 out of 27 PfP countries were contributing troops to I-For, which Nato's Secretary-General, Javier Solana, has described as "the most ambitious PfP exercise ever achieved".

But he said Nato enlargement would never extend to all countries, and that membership of Nato involved a "huge new commitment on their part, and on the part of Nato".

Mr Major said Britain hadthree objectives at the IGC: maintaining effective military forces; creating a Europe that was "whole and free", and promoting security in the region and the world. He said Europe should look south as well as east, and the WEU ought to build on last November's Barcelona conference to build security across the Mediterranean.