Portillo alone on Euro-defence

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Britain stands alone in its desire to keep European defence separate from the institutions of the European Union, it was confirmed yesterday. A meeting in Madrid of defence and foreign ministers of the Western European Union, the EU's embryo security arm, ended with scant agreement

"We must be careful to be clear that the basis of European security is the Atlantic alliance. Other European forces cannot be in competition with that," said the Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo.

"Among the 10 full WEU members, we are in a minority of one," admitted a British official, a view echoed by Spain, holder of the WEU presidency.

Ministers from 27 European countries - including the Baltic states and East European countries - approved a document outlining options for Europe's defence policy to be put to next year's inter-government conference (IGC) that will reform the Maastricht treaty. Consensus on a common conception of European security would have been inconceivable five years ago, the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, said after the meeting, and was "a solid and worthwhile achievement".

But the paper, with its three policy options, only summarises the main differences among WEU nations and does not attempt to resolve them. That task will fall to the IGC. Only Britain supports the first option: that the WEU - primarily Nato minus the US and Canada, which Britain regards as Nato's European arm - should remain separate from the EU.

The nine other full members want the WEU and the EU to come together, the main difference among them being the speed at which this should occur. Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium are keen to push the pace towards a merger - option three. The rest favour a more relaxed timetable of a progressive subordination of the WEU to the European Council (the biannual meetings of EU heads of state and government) leading to an eventual fusion, which is option two.