- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

BRUSSELS — A largely philosophical debate over the wisdom of a separate EU army is rapidly coming to a head in this city, headquarters to the European Union and the trans-Atlantic alliance NATO.

Pushed primarily by France, the EU force is seen by supporters as a boost to Europe’s lagging defense capabilities and by skeptics as a direct challenge to Washington’s dominance in the security field.

Addressing the European Union’s aggressive drive to create the institutions behind the defense force by summer, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell employed some bland language to deliver a blunt message on a visit here last week.

“Our security is bound together in NATO, even as the European Union expands its capabilities,” Mr. Powell said after a working lunch with the foreign ministers of the European Union’s 25 current and prospective members.

“And we support all the initiatives that are under way to expand the capabilities of the European Union in the security field.”

A U.S. diplomat attached to the EU mission here said the unspoken message was: “We can live with where we are on this, but we’re not sure we like where it’s headed.”

The debate is shifting from paper to concrete — literally — in the Brussels suburb of Tervuren, where backers of the EU defense force hope to build a permanent headquarters and planning center for the new body, a multinational “rapid-reaction” army with 60,000 troops on call.

U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns has attacked the center proposal as wasteful and redundant, given NATO’s own resources. Outgoing NATO Secretary-General George Robertson has said that Europe needs “more usable soldiers and fewer paper armies,” not its own military bureaucratic showcase.

But French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie has argued that Europe is only doing what the Americans have long been demanding.

“Successive American administrations, and even [Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld on a number of occasions have incited Europeans to build their own defense,” she said in an interview with Agence France-Presse last week.

“So it would be misplaced to come and reproach us for doing that which they have for years encouraged us to do,” she added.

Advocates also say the defense force could address the growing “capacity gap” with the better-funded U.S. military.

The European Union has engaged in military operations independent of NATO, overseeing missions in Bosnia-Herzegovina as well as Macedonia, both using NATO assets.

In a little-noticed move, an EU force in June carried out a U.N.-backed peacekeeping mission in Congo, without NATO aid and with France supplying the planning and command structure.

Mr. Powell said a planned EU defense cooperation agency, to be led by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, “doesn’t cause us any concern,” and President Bush, during a recent state visit to Britain, said only that he “trusted” Prime Minister Tony Blair on the issue.

But analysts say the U.S. government has been more pointed in private talks, especially with Mr. Blair, America’s closest ally in the European Union.

“No matter what the president chooses to say in public in praise of his ally … in private he will tell Blair that his decision to sign on to new common defense arrangements with France and its allies may threaten the special relationship that has enabled America and Britain to win and preserve the peace for over 50 years,” wrote London Times columnist Irwin Seltzer.

Britain’s Conservatives, deeply skeptical of French and German intentions for the European Union, also have hammered Mr. Blair over the defense force plans.

“The French have for a generation made it a matter of priority that Europe should provide for its own defense outside NATO,” according to Conservative Party foreign policy spokesman Michael Ancram.

Britain is anxious to mend fences with France and Germany after the bitter divisions over the Iraq war, but Defense Minister Geoff Hoon has dismissed the proposed Tervuren complex as “expensive and unnecessary.”

Mr. Blair’s delicate straddle on the issue was on display in a summit in London earlier this week with French President Jacques Chirac, in which the two leaders admitted to a continuing disagreement over the ultimate shape of the EU military force.

“It makes to me complete sense in circumstances where NATO is not engaged for Europe to have the capability and the power to act in the interests of Europe and the wider world,” Mr. Blair said.

But he acknowledged there were “practical issues” to be dealt with and said the defense force must not be incompatible with NATO.

Mr. Chirac made clear that he would push for a strong planning capability for the new force.

“There are operations which need to be carried out by us, and they have to be properly prepared, properly led and properly operated,” he told reporters.

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