Leading Article: When Britain fights for Europe

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The Independent Online
Two chapters in British military history are coming to their close. The Royal Navy is planning to enter a formal, if limited, partnership with the French Navy, ending at least two centuries of maritime rivalry. The RAF, it was announced yesterday, will close down in 2002 its final base in Germany, ending a presence unbroken since the Second World War.

The two events are, in one sense, quite distinct, in another sense, connected through an intriguing web of developments in European security policy. Almost unnoticed in the vacuous, Euro-baiting atmosphere in Westminster, Britain has been playing a bashfully positive European role in defence.

There are three arguments for change. Everyone agrees on the need to revise political structures, doctrines and deployments designed to face a full-frontal threat from the Soviet Union that no longer exists. Everyone, or almost everyone, agrees on the need to respond to the new security challenges of a more muddled, but still dangerous world. The new challenges will largely consist of fire-fighting and peace-keeping in small regional conflicts. They demand a modern, flexible military, capable of rapid deployment and - crucially - close co-operation with political allies, platoon by platoon and ship by ship.

Finally, most European governments - yes, even Britain - agree on the need to develop a specifically European security capacity, complimentary to Nato, not in competition with it. The failings of Europe's response in Bosnia make the case. There may once again be circumstances in which European governments feel the need to commit troops but the United States does not.

A hugely important development has been the French decision to re-consider its 30-year alienation from the military wing of Nato. President Chirac has admitted, in effect, that years of French attempts to build a European defence policy, in rivalry to Nato, have failed. The new French approach is to push for the creation of a European defence arm within Nato, based on the hitherto marginal Western European Union. The suggestion, to be discussed again by European defence ministers in Birmingham next week, is that the WEU should be "separable but not separate" from Nato. In other words, it should have the logistical, communications and transport assets needed to send European forces to a trouble zone, with the US blessing, but without US involvement. Britain generally supports this policy. So, with some reservations, does the US.

France wants to go further by giving overall control of WEU policies to EU summits. Britain vehemently opposes EU involvement in military matters.

Nonetheless - quite against the popular view of Anglo-French relations - the two principal military powers on the Continent see eye to eye on most security matters these days. A Franco-British Air Group, with a small headquarters in Buckinghamshire, has been created to run joint airlifts to trouble spots. The proposed Franco-British naval agreement will provide for something similar: formalising procedures for command and control of joint maritime operations in support of trouble-shooting or peacekeeping.

All of this may seem a far bugle call from Michael Portillo's stirring speech to the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool last year in which he said Britain would never belong to a European army under an EU defence policy. His speech ignored the facts, and grossly misrepresented the spirit, of what Britain is doing in the real world. Mr Portillo has been defence secretary for 10 months: fortunately, the Government's pursuit of a more European defence policy appears to have carried on regardless.

Britain tends to stress the bi-lateral, pragmatic nature of what is going on. France sees it as a step towards a European defence identity. No matter. The result will be the same and entirely laudable: to equip Europe with the military capacity to defend shared European foreign policy goals. There is a wider lesson here: the "pragmatic" and "visionary" versions of Europe's future are not necessarily at odds with each other. The Government should make more of these half-hidden European credentials, both at home and abroad. Its actions show that as far as defence is concerned at least Europe provides a more affordable and effective way to address modern security issues.