Flying the flag for a pioneering military mission

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The European Union's failure to establish a convincing defence and military capability of its own has mocked the political ambitions of federalists for years. The charge levelled - and not just by sceptics - was that Europe would always end up running to Washington when it needed "boots on the ground" to put out the fires of conflict in its own backyard.

The European Union's failure to establish a convincing defence and military capability of its own has mocked the political ambitions of federalists for years. The charge levelled - and not just by sceptics - was that Europe would always end up running to Washington when it needed "boots on the ground" to put out the fires of conflict in its own backyard.

Today's transfer of responsibility for peace-keeping in Bosnia from Nato to a 7,000-strong EU force is thus an important turning point. In fact, the only practical difference is that the foreign troops will wear armbands bearing the blue and gold of the EU flag. Most of the EU soldiers are already there serving under Nato command.

Yet the departure of American troops and the formal start of the first military mission of this scale under joint EU command is highly symbolic. The disintegration of Yugoslavia tragically exposed the EU's political impotence and its reliance on American military backbone. Now, nine years after the end of the civil war, the Balkans offers Europe the opportunity to atone for those failures. And European governments at last appear ready to take up the challenge. The Bosnian operation shows that a common European security ambition can be realised - even when 25 nations have to agree on the mechanics.

The immense practical challenge should not be underestimated. As Paddy Ashdown - the international community's high representative in Bosnia - says, this is the moment when the EU must prove it has the capacity "to do hard defence". Nor is bitterly divided Bosnia a shining example of post-conflict nation-building. Yet EU success could help alleviate many of the tensions, and pave the way for Brussels to offer association agreements and, eventually, even membership of the EU. Pacifying unstable regions with the lure of economic aid, trade, and a seat at a bigger political table is, after all, what Europe can do best.

Failure, on the other hand, would leave Bosnia in the grip of instability, crime and poverty, while torpedoing plans for a single European military force. Nothing less than the future of Europe's common foreign and security policy rests on success in this mission.

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