Donald Rumsfeld was on his best behaviour in Brussels yesterday, refusing to condemn the deal between France, Germany and Britain on European defence which the British Conservatives have lost no time in denouncing. What may take several days to emerge, however, is whether it represents genuine acceptance by the US - or merely a diplomatic silence in response to British assurances that nothing has yet been formally signed. This story may not be quite over yet.
The Opposition protests, along with the hardly less entrenched resistance of the Ministry of Defence and sections of the Foreign Office, are right about one thing. This deal, draft or final, is a truly important step, the first for a very long time to gladden the hearts of British pro-Europeans. For once in the long history of reluctant British participation in Europe, a history which goes back further even than her disengagement from the purposes of the Community's founding conference at Messina in 1955, Britain is in at the start of a major European project in a way that allows her to influence its outcome as an equal partner. More immediately, it is the most significant attempt yet to put back some of the pieces of the European and - though Washington has been slow to welcome this, assuming it even sees it--the transatlantic jigsaw that had been blown apart by Iraq.
Even though Tony Blair was, with Jacques Chirac, one of the two original architects of the European Defence Initiative, it might not have happened this way. For back in April, in the wake of the deep fissures over Iraq, France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg announced provocatively timed plans for a "core Europe" defence organisation, with its own headquarters, which would have excluded Britain altogether. Wholly understandably, the US saw this as further evidence that France and Germany were hell-bent on undermining Nato.
To replace this crazily lopsided proposal with one in which Britain plays a leading part, both sides have compromised. Chancellor Schröder and President Chirac agreed to modify the defence section of the draft EU constitution to ensure that any such future "core" arrangements can be vetoed by any EU member. And they no longer insisted on the EU having its own separate military headquarters building in return for Blair conceding that operational planners could instead join the existing Brussels EU military staff whose principal - and fairly innocuous - task is the analysis of long term strategic needs.
The first option would be for the Nato planners to run any European-only peace-keeping operation under the so called "Berlin plus" arrangements, as they did in Macedonia and are likely to in Bosnia; the second would be for a national headquarters, augmented by staff from other participant countries, to do so as the recent Congo operation was run from France. Only if there were good reasons not to do either - not immediately easy to identify - would the Brussels planning cell actually run any operations. This deal, painstakingly negotiated for Britain by the two senior diplomats attached to No. 10, Sir Nigel Scheinwald and Sir Stephen Wall, served an incidental purpose of providing some central co-ordination between the military and civilian, including policing, elements of any such operation. More significantly it provided a face-saving end to a protracted dispute between the European desire for at least a notional military headquarters and Britain's determination to do nothing that would undermine Nato.
But of course US objections weren't primarily about the technicalities. Even the complaint that the European initiative would undermine Nato had a rather hollow ring. Rumsfeld's doctrine that the mission defined the coalition and not the other way round had meant that Washington had failed to exploit Nato's unprecedented invocation of Article V in support of the US immediately after September 11, 2001 ; and had been slow to involve it in Afghanistan. Rather, the issue for a rampantly Francophobe Pentagon, and for Donald Rumsfeld, in particular, was that any deal between France and the UK threatened to cut across his desire to make permanent the wedge driven between "old Europe" and "new Europe" by Iraq.
But was that European split really in the US's long-term interests? For a start, the defence clause which Britain wants to see in the new EU constitution provides that those who join EU defence do so only if and when they have military assets to contribute. This itself should encourage EU members to do what Washington has historically argued the EU should do. Which is to put some of its military money where its internationalist mouth is, and not simply rely on the US military to execute the foreign policy of its own member states.
What's more, the end to a largely theological dispute between the UK and France should, according to Charles Grant, who heads the Centre for European Reform, now allows the EU to focus on just that - extending Europe's defence capabilities. If Europe irritates Washington by being Venus to the US's Mars, it now has the opportunity to become a little more Martian. Britain, Grant adds, is now at the heart of EU defence, "which means that by definition it won't undermine Nato, which is the other reason the US should be relaxed".
But there is a larger context. In the strategic White Paper which it will publish today, the Foreign Office will reaffirm - predictably - that its relationship with the US is the most important one with an individual country. But it will also assert that relations between the US and Europe will be of paramount importance to the world's - as well as Britain's - security. If this is a platitude, it's a welcome one, seeking to transcend the divisions last year over Iraq. It hardly matters for this purpose whether you blame "old Europe" for failing to give the US a second UN resolution or the US for going to war in Iraq in defiance of international opposition. The resulting split was a catastrophe, contributing to the difficulties and terrible dangers that still overshadow Iraq today.
To be true to the doctrine that only when Europe and the US act together can the resolution of these crises be guaranteed a measure of success, the Government needs to stand firmly by the deal it has made with France and Germany. Rumsfeld's uncharacteristically diplomatic behaviour yesterday should not obscure the restiveness that still exists in Washington over European defence. Within Whitehall there are already mutterings that the deal may have to be modified in the face of US pressure. Colin Powell certainly expressed his anxieties to Jack Straw at the end of last week. But Washington surely owes it to Blair to trust him now. By withstanding the heat from the Administration, as he has so far, Blair has done something real to offset the gibe that his foreign policy is now no more than a creature of the US neo-conservatives. If Washington rumbles, as it still may, he should console himself that this deal in the long term serves US as well as European goals.Reuse content