Steve Richards: Tell us what our troops are doing in the Balkans

'British troops are involved in a dangerous engagement with no parliamentary questioning or endorsement'
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The Independent Online

Britiah troops are leading the way in Macedonia. This is what British troops tend to do these days. While the rest of Europe equivocates nervously and the United States takes a step back from the front line, servicemen from Britain brave hostilities in trouble spots around the world. The British Government is turning to Europe's hospitals because our under-funded, badly run National Health Service cannot cope. But when it comes to war, Europe tends to leave it to Britain.

Britain has paid for it as well, in terms of lives and its over-stretched but still large defence budget. Ian Collins, who was killed earlier this week, is not the first British solider to have died on peacekeeping duties in the Balkans. In the past five years, 60 UK servicemen have lost their lives in the region. Last year, an SAS soldier was shot dead in Sierra Leone as he attempted to rescue other servicemen held hostage by local militia. Currently, Britain's defence budget also has to support permanent garrisons in outposts such as Cyprus, Belize and the Falklands. In addition, Britain has been enforcing UN sanctioned "No-Fly zones" over Iraq since 1991.

However noble in principle, conflict prevention is an expensive and dangerous business, especially if Britain's allies are less enthusiastic and less qualified to participate. Tony Blair first outlined the Government's pragmatic ethical foreign policy in the United States during the 50th anniversary meeting of Nato that took place at the height of the Balkans conflict in 1999. In responding to criticisms about why he was willing to take on Slobodan Milosevic in the Balkans, while turning a blind eye to tyrants elsewhere, Mr Blair argued that selectivity was unavoidable. Sometimes it would not be militarily feasible to intervene. But wherever it was practical Nato members and other EU countries should consider intervention.

Ever since, and indeed before the speech was made, the British government has been following the principles outlined in the speech. Britain may have lost an empire, but New Labour is developing an enthusiasm for peacekeeping around the world. The problem is that the rest of the EU and the US are not so keen – and this is not a policy that Britain can pursue alone.

Events in Macedonia highlight how exposed Britain has become in its new global role. Of the 4,000 troops in Macedonia, about half are from this country. Other European countries are providing a few hundred each at most. Even Europhiles such as the Liberal Democrats' Foreign Affair's spokesman, Menzies Campbell, conclude that the numerical imbalance bodes ill for Europe's Rapid Reaction Force: Not for the first time has Europe as a whole failed to react rapidly in the Balkans.

Britain's position is becoming much more stretched now that George Bush is in the White House. Bush and his senior advisers are wary of the US playing the role of global peace-keeper. There are no American troops on the front line in Macedonia.

At least the Clinton administration was divided about the role of the US. Erratically and with Blair himself playing an influential role, the US echoed the Prime Minister's pragmatic ethical foreign policy during Clinton's later years. So much so, that in a book soon to be published, US generals are reported to have complained about his "values-driven military activism".

The book's author, David Halberstam, also quotes a senior American conservative observing that, "the Republicans want a big army and then don't send it anywhere, while the Democrats want a very small one and want to send it everywhere". It is possible, although not certain, that under Clinton the US would have continued to play a more active peacekeeping role in the Balkans.

In spite of Menzies Campbell's pessimism, events in Macedonia make the development of a European Rapid Reaction Force more, rather than less, necessary. Although the mere mention of a "European army" sends shivers down the backs of the modern-day Conservative Party and most of the press, the main beneficiary would be Britain itself. Peace-keeping in Europe cannot be left to Nato when the US is going through such a parochial phase. Nor is there any reason why it should be left largely to Britain alone.

Worryingly, some of the momentum has gone out the moves to establish the Rapid Reaction Force. Last November, Mr Blair took on the Eurosceptic newspapers over the issue and discovered to his surprise that he had the support of most voters (an episode the Conservative Party membership may care to re-visit before they endorse another fervent Eurosceptic as their leader). Messrs Schroder and Jospin were delighted. But since then the three main national leaders have lost some of their focus. Some supporters of the establishment of the Rapid Reaction Force are beginning to wonder whether it will happen at all.

There are obvious difficulties such as the seeming inability of the leading EU governments to agree on when the circumstances require military intervention. But consensus is more likely when the EU has a well-trained force of its own capable of genuinely reacting rapidly.

In the short term there is a more immediate concern. Too often, ministers seem to be caught on the hop by their own foreign policy. During an early crisis in Sierra Leone the Foreign Office took several days before explaining what was happening. It was not even entirely clear ministers knew what was happening themselves. Now the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary are still on holiday, while the Foreign Secretary has only just returned. Jack Straw has announced he is to visit Macedonia later this week, but he is chasing events, not shaping them.

Which reflects a wider complacency over the handling of what is, after all, a radical and controversial approach to international affairs. Now that Clinton has gone, the Government is following a uniquely active foreign policy. It is doing so with remarkably little domestic scrutiny. We are so used to Britain going to war without MPs getting a look in that it passes without comment. Even so, here we go again: British troops are involved in a dangerous international engagement with no parliamentary questioning, let alone endorsement. Nor has any senior minister – prior to Mr Straw's return from holiday – attempted to explain what the Government is trying to achieve in Macedonia.

Yesterday, lunchtime World at One was told that, "Mr Straw is physically unable to get to a microphone. Mr Hoon is on holiday", and the programme got no reply from Mr Blair's office. This is in the context of a substantial military engagement in which already one soldier has died.

MPs are not back for months to question the Government. In the meantime, there needs to be much more ministerial explanation about this still-embryonic foreign policy. There is a strong case for an active foreign policy that prioritises peacekeeping. But it needs to be done with much closer cooperation with other EU members. And the case does have to be made.