- The Washington Times - Monday, October 20, 2003

BRUSSELS — NATO nations opened a special meeting yesterday on the European Union’s plan to set up its own defense arm, parts of which have been criticized by the United States as a serious threat to allied unity.

The U.S. ambassador to the alliance, Nicholas Burns, called for the meeting after expressing alarm about the direction of the EU’s military ambitions, in particular proposals backed by France and Germany for the Europeans to have a separate headquarters to plan operations independent of NATO.

Mr. Burns reportedly said at a routine meeting of NATO envoys last week that the proposal was a significant threat to the alliance’s future. His comments provoked a heated reply from some European allies.

U.S. concerns have been exacerbated by signs that its closest ally in Europe — Britain, under Prime Minister Tony Blair — may be warming to the Franco-German position.

Mr. Blair, however, joined French President Jacques Chirac and other European leaders at a summit last week in reassuring Americans that NATO remains the cornerstone of Europe’s defense. Mr. Blair said the EU’s plans would strengthen the alliance, rather than undermine its unity.

“We need, of course, a strong European defense, but nothing must call into question the defense guarantees of NATO,” Mr. Blair told reporters Friday in Brussels.

At the same EU meeting, Mr. Chirac said the European defense arm would be “open to all and is coherent with our NATO commitments.”

Mr. Chirac angered the United States by joining with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder plus the leaders of Belgium and Luxembourg to announce their European headquarters plan in April, when tensions within NATO were running high about the Iraq war.

Those four nations led opposition to the war within NATO and infuriated Washington by delaying for weeks a U.S. request for NATO to send military backing to Turkey in case of an Iraqi attack on that NATO member.

Faced with opposition from Mr. Blair and many other EU leaders, Mr. Chirac and Mr. Schroeder have agreed to modify their original headquarters plan, but U.S. officials fear that in return Mr. Blair will go along with some form of independent EU military planning structure.

Mr. Burns’ complaint reflects concerns that the Europeans are keeping Washington in the dark. European diplomats say the EU nations must first agree among themselves how to shape their defense plans, before bringing the Americans into the loop.

Diplomats said they expected no major decisions to come out of yesterday’s meeting, or the regular monthly meeting today between NATO ambassadors and their counterparts from the European Union. Eleven of the 15 EU nations are also members of NATO, and both organizations are based in Brussels.

U.S. officials say they remain supportive of the basic idea of the European Union taking more responsibility for Europe’s defense.

However, they say a separate European headquarters would represent a divisive duplication of resources, because NATO has already agreed to make its military planners available to missions run by the European bloc.

That system has been working since March, when the European Union launched its first military mission with a small peacekeeping operation in Macedonia.

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