BRITAIN AND France yesterday formally urged next month's European Union summit in Helsinki to take "a decisive step" to give Europe its own military force.
After a day-long meeting at Downing Street - at which the beef crisis played only a minor and uncontroversial role - the Prime Minister and the French President, Jacques Chirac, were optimistic that other EU countries would back the initiative, which would give the EU an "autonomous" capacity to act in cases where the whole of Nato did not take part.
In a declaration designed to allay American fears that Europe was seeking to set up a military structure that could duplicate or even compete with Nato, the continent's two major military powers last night promised that the Alliance would remain "the foundation of our collective defence".
The new 60,000-strong force will have its own command, control and full logistic capabilities. It was intended to "complement Nato as the cornerstone of our defence," Tony Blair said. And President Chirac, who is suspected by many in the US establishment of aiming to undermine the Alliance, declared that the plan would have no negative consequences for Nato. "In reality it reinforces Nato," he said.
At the defence summit in Finland, France and Britain want their partners to approve an EU military committee with its own staff who would help plan and conduct EU-led operations once they had been approved by ministers. Paris and London are also promising to bring members of the Atlantic Alliance who do not belong to the EU, such as Poland, Turkey and Norway, into the decision-shaping process.
The EU force could be run, they say, out of British and French joint staff headquarters, into which officers from other EU countries would be placed. But Mr Blair reiterated that this did not signify the creation of a separate European army.
Underlining their commitment to the new venture, France and Britain have also agreed to draw on each other's military transport assets if needed, to deploy rapidly in a crisis. They underlined Europe's glaring need for new transport aircraft, the lack of which was the European countries' biggest single weakness exposed by the crisis in Kosovo earlier this year.
In Kosovo, European nations carried out only 20 per cent of the strike sorties, despite a paper capability of several thousand combat aircraft. Europe was stretched sending a few tens of thousands of troops into Kosovo - 2 per cent of the combined armed forces of Europe. The total defence budget of Europe is estimated at pounds 100bn. With more effective armed forces, European nations would be able to make a more substantial contribution.
In the meantime Eurocorps, the predominantly Franco-German force based in Strasbourg, will be transformed into a rapid-reaction corps to work closely with Nato and the EU.
Mr Blair said Britain was ready to provide British forces for the Eurocorps headquarters, just as France and Germany have already done in the case of the British-led Ace Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC).
The Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon said: "We need flexible forces that can get to a crisis more quickly, efficiently, and effectively."
Leading article, Review, page 3;
Lawrence Freedman, Review, page 4
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies