- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2006

GENEVA — The European Union’s ambitious plan to create an independent defense force has stumbled into financial difficulties that are likely to delay, if not scuttle, the project.

The EU defense agency is looking for an initial $60 million budget to begin weapons research, but contributions have not been forthcoming as some nations argue that NATO should remain the dominant defense pact and trans-Atlantic link, diplomats say.

The situation has led to an acerbic debate pitting Britain, a staunch NATO supporter, against France, the prime backer of a separate European defense capability.

Nineteen of the 25 EU members also belong to the U.S.-led NATO alliance.

The United States has criticized the plans for a separate European defense force, saying it would unnecessarily duplicate NATO’s global planning and expenditure.

Pentagon planners are voicing alarm that NATO allies have cut military manpower and spending since the September 11 attacks, with Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Poland, Spain and Germany all reducing their active-duty forces.

At an annual security conference in Munich last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel defended the concept of NATO’s dominant role, to the applause of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

NATO, she said, “should remain as the center of political discussion on the implications of the crises and the permanent analysis of the various threats.”

Proponents of an independent European defense system, such as EU commissioner for industry Gunter Verheugen, argue that the effort “is indispensable to our independence and political sovereignty.”

Nevertheless, the European Union’s request for $60 million to establish a joint defense budget has received little support or response.

“The money is simply not coming,” said Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief. “To face to all existing threats, we must spend more, spend better and, above all, spend together.”

EU statistics show that the 25 member nations among them maintain more than 2 million men and women under arms. About 60 percent of military budgets go for the pay and pensions of military personnel.

Most of the troops remain in barracks, with no real tasks beyond training. Contingents from EU members serve in Afghan- istan and Kosovo under EU or NATO flags; some are in Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition.

The $60 million sought by the European Union would be used mainly for research, including efforts to develop a European military helicopter to replace the 10 types the nations now use.

EU officials point out that defense research spending by all EU nations combined represents less than 20 percent of what is spent by the United States. Much of that money, analysts say, is wasted by unnecessary duplication of efforts.

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