Leading Article: Britain's lead on European defence

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The Independent Online
The Government may be about to do something right in European policy. Even more surprising, its initiative results from careful analysis of the international situation, reflection on past mistakes and a clear perception of British strengths. If they keep this up, the Conservatives may have something to celebrate.

Interesting proposals on European defence have started to filter out of both the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office during the past few months.

This week, with a landmark speech by Douglas Hurd and contributions to a Nato conference in The Hague, those proposals have started to take form as something closely resembling a fully-worked out policy. It is by and large sensible, in line with our European allies, and even ahead of the game.

What is envisaged is a long way from a European army, let alone the idea that the European Union's Commission should lead divisions into war. The Government wants to see much closer collaboration in the Western European Union, the 10-member defence body that is linked to both Nato and the European Union. The WEU should not become part of the EU, the Government believes, but have its bonds tightened through the creation of a new security 'pillar' for the EU.

Collaboration with France on a joint airborne command is a start, as are the existing Anglo-Dutch amphibious brigade, the five-country Euro-corps and other experiments in bilateral co-operation. These reflect not only the exigencies of tightened defence budgets but also a growing realisation that Europe must do more to help itself. The Americans have sanctioned this, encouraged it even. As long as what is developed does not compromise Nato - and the British ideas do not - Washington will do everything it can to help.

Going beyond present co-operation to create a real European security and defence identity will mean getting all the EU member states to agree in 1996, when they rewrite the Maastricht treaty. The Government knows that two countries are vital to success: France and Britain. That is one reason it has taken the lead. This is an area of policy where Britain can play an important role, and where it can - in line with the Government's idea of a 'multi-speed Europe' - be in the fast lane.

The French government, ahead of the presidential election, is still divided but is moving Britain's way. Germany, as the EU's main political power, will play a pivotal role but it is Paris and London that possess the military power and the ability to make or break European defence.

It is by no means impossible that this promising start will be seriously compromised by the Government's worst enemy - its own party. European defence was a highly inflammatory subject for the Conservatives when EU leaders met at Maastricht in 1991. Since then ministers and officials have moved ahead; the Tory party has moved backwards. It would be a tragedy if a sensible and necessary initiative was killed off by ignorant nationalism of the worst sort.