BY MICHAEL EVANS, DEFENCE EDITOR
AMERICA is insisting that Nato must be given "the right of first refusal" to intervene in any future humanitarian crisis in Europe, to block the European Union from launching a military operation without consulting Washington.
Despite reassurances, particularly from London, that the European plan to form an "autonomous" defence capability presents no threat to Nato, the United States still has doubts about a hidden agenda in Brussels, according to senior US sources yesterday.
In the lead-up to three key European meetings which will focus on the EU's developing security and defence identity, US officials emphasised that, although Washington was far less worried about Europe's military ambitions than it was a few months ago, there were still key points that were causing misgivings.
The three meetings are the Anglo-French summit in London on Thursday, which will develop agreements on defence sharing begun in St Mâlo a year ago; a Western European Union ministerial session in Luxembourg ending today that will study a recently completed audit of Europe's military capabilities; and an EU summit in Helsinki on December 10 that will make crucial decisions about possible future European-only operations.
The American sources said that one of the principal areas to be resolved was the question of "sequencing" - the order in which decisions would be made to send a European force on a mission without the involvement of US troops.
Washington's argument is that, since the European security and defence identity is supposed to be complementary to Nato and not in competition with the alliance, the first discussions about any potential military operation should be held within Nato. "Even if Washington then decides not to send troops, we still want to be involved in the decision-making process from the beginning," one American source said. "In undiplomatic language, that means Nato should have the right of first refusal," the source said.
The Americans remain convinced, however, that the French, in particular, will fight against that, because they will see it as Washington's way of keeping control of all future military operations.
The US official said that "sequencing" was crucial because at the Nato summit in Washington in April it was agreed that the EU would have "presumed access to Nato assets" in the event of a military operation not involving US troops.
The EU summit in Cologne in June caused panic in Washington because the careful language adopted by the Nato meeting in April was not reflected in the EU communiqué, which referred only to an "autonomous" security and defence policy. The American official said: "If the EU's summit in Helsinki next month is about autonomy and not sequencing, then we're going to have a hard time."
Foreign Office officials made clear yesterday that, as far as Britain and the rest of the EU were concerned, the Union's plans for running its own military capabilities would be "Nato-supportive and Nato-friendly".
The Helsinki summit, they said, would for the first time set down the "headline goals" for all 15 member states, outlining the role expected of them if there was a crisis requiring a humanitarian, peacekeeping or peace enforcement operation.
Under present proposals, the EU wants to be able to deploy a "corps-size" force (about 40,000 troops) for up to two years, with some of the units ready to go within 48 hours.
The Foreign Office officials admitted this would not be possible for several years, because many European members of Nato did not have rapidly deployable forces and there were serious gaps in capability, such as strategic airlift.
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