- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2003

LE TOUQUET, France, Feb. 4 (UPI) — France and Britain may not see eye to eye over how to disarm Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but Europe's two strongest military powers Tuesday took a major step toward creating a common European defense force with the power to act independently of both the United States and NATO.

At a summit in the upscale French seaside resort of Le Touquet, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac agreed to come to each other's aid in the event of an attack on either country.

The two leaders also agreed to push for a solidarity clause for the European Union similar to the NATO military alliance's Article 5. This would mean an attack on one EU country would be seen as an attack on all 15.

Both France and Britain want the EU to play a bigger role on the world stage, albeit for different reasons. Paris sees the EU as a bulwark against the United States "hyperpower," while London views the Brussels-based club as a means of stretching its global reach.

Five years ago at St. Malo, France, Chirac and Blair laid the foundations of a common EU security and defense policy by agreeing to set up a 60,000 strong European rapid-reaction force capable of carrying out peacekeeping operations anywhere in the world within 60 days.

Speaking to reporters after a day of talks with his French counterpart, Blair said: "What was begun at St. Malo has today received a significant push forward."

The two leaders agreed to push for a European arms procurement agency, establish common EU targets for defense expenditure and pool naval capacities to repel aggression.

Both countries have agreed to build extra aircraft carriers by 2015 and have at least one European carrier available for military operations at any one time. French officials said Italy and Spain, the only other EU countries to have aircraft carriers, would be invited to participate in the scheme.

The chances of EU troops intervening rapidly in a conflict also received a boost Tuesday when France and Britain said the EU's rapid-reaction force should be ready for deployment within five to 10 days.

At the end of the 25th summit between France and Britain, Blair told reporters: "There is a lot more which unites us than divides us." However, Europe's only two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council could only agree to disagree over how to disarm Saddam.

Chirac argued for U.N. weapons inspectors to be given more time to carry out their work, arguing: "War is always the worst possible solution." Blair, on the other hand, pointed to a Feb. 14 report by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix as a day of reckoning for the Baghdad regime.

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