EU takes steps to create a military force, without treading on NatoBy Joseph Fitchett
Paris, Wednesday, March 1, 2000
PARIS - The European Union plans to unveil an institutional arm to handle defense Wednesday. It will be the first concrete step by Europe's major countries to set up their own military forces as a complement to NATO.
Three bodies are being created in Brussels by the 15 EU states: a political and security committee of ambassadors, a military committee of senior officers and a multinational planning staff. Some of the elements are being taken over from the Western European Union, a small body that used to work with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
EU leaders have pledged to put together a multinational rapid-reaction force of 50,000 that could be deployed anywhere around Europe in 60 days and stay in the field for a year.
In practice, this means that EU countries need a pool of 200,000 professional soldiers ready for combat duty and a multinational fleet of transport planes.
The new defense structure will be strictly intergovernmental, with no role for the European Commission or the European Parliament, officials said. Any decision to deploy troops would in practice require the consent of all 15 member states. Military action would then be planned and carried out by the bigger countries with forces. In effect, this system will work like NATO's key organs, although the European planning capability will be dwarfed by the alliance's integrated military structures.
Described as an interim approach by its main architect, Javier Solana, the EU high representative for foreign and security policy, the new structure should make for a comfortable working relationship between NATO and the EU, he said.
Traditionally, the two organizations have stayed at arm's length, partly because NATO includes Turkey, Norway, Canada and the United States - which are not EU members - and the EU includes such neutrals as Ireland, Sweden, Austria and Finland.
Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are handling their NATO roles carefully to avoid jeopardizing their prospects for joining the EU, diplomats said.
Publicly, reassurance is the dominant tone in Brussels. Except for the French representatives, the officers on the military committees at NATO and the EU will be the same people, who will be "double-hatted" to ensure cooperation and confidence between the two organizations.
Mr. Solana, formerly NATO's secretary-general, has been working hard to allay apprehensions in Washington and in NATO now that the EU has actually started down a path that U.S. and European leaders have publicly supported for many years.
Peevishness and even trans-Atlantic suspicions surfaced last month at an international meeting, the Munich Security Conference.
NATO commanders and some U.S. diplomats complained that they were being cold-shouldered by EU governments and warned that U.S. cooperation could suffer if Washington got the impression that Europeans were starting to create a smaller rival to NATO.
Mr. Solana pleaded for more U.S. understanding.
"It's completely unfair and unrealistic to Europe," he said of Washington's attitude in his closing remarks to the Munich audience. "We've done what we promised, we've focused on capabilities and indulged in elaborate political fantasies, and we've worked fast and seriously."
Providing more detail in an interview in his Brussels office, Mr. Solana emphasized how far EU governments had moved recently in surmounting longstanding obstacles to seeing the NATO military alliance institute direct cooperation with the largely political and economic work of the European Union.
Although the two bodies are both based in Brussels, there were never any formal contacts between them until recent months, largely because France, together with the EU neutrals, objected to seeing the U.S.-led alliance gain wider European influence. This posture of officially ignoring each other started collapsing at the end of Soviet control in Eastern Europe a decade ago when it proved too complicated for the EU to embrace quickly the new democracies emerging from the Soviet bloc, leaving NATO to do the job.
Similarly, the EU quickly staked a claim to handling Bosnia, only to have to turn to Washington for help there, and again in Kosovo.
In Washington, some congressmen have expressed worries that the cost of such a high-profile European force could divert funds from the more sophisticated military electronics that European armed forces need to operate in a coalition led by the United States.
But President Bill Clinton's administration continues to support the initiative.
"The Europeans sometimes use nationalistic rhetoric and pursue a very different reality," a U.S. official said, noting that the Eurocorps - a largely French-German outfit that could be the embryo of Europe's rapid-reaction force - had put itself under NATO command, using NATO procedures, for its first operation, starting in Kosovo.
Similarly, a Clinton administration policymaker said at the Munich meeting that he was telling EU leaders to "use the force idea if you need it for wrapping, just as long as you get the meat - more defense spending." Germany, in particular, is under pressure from Washington and European capitals to reverse its recent defense budget cuts.
Great hopes are pinned on Mr. Solana's ability to work with his successor as chief of NATO, George Robertson.
It may prove a subtle balancing act.
Lord Robertson, Britain's defense minister last year during the Kosovo conflict, in which Mr. Solana's leadership was widely praised, embodies London's new tilt toward EU defense. The shift has opened the way to rapid changes that do not always gratify Washington.
Lord Robertson was instrumental in pushing the Eurocorps, despite reservations on the part of General Wesley Clark, NATO's top officer, to take command in Kosovo next month without waiting.
"The Europeans can do it because the United States is providing the technology and the technicians to make it work," a NATO official said. But Lord Robertson's aggressiveness in pushing for a political success before Europe had the actual military capability for it is "exactly what rouses American suspicions," the official said.
Some U.S. officials have complained that NATO was not getting "a right of first refusal" before the EU takes up a security issue, a point on which France has been particularly prickly.
But Mr. Solana said that the official wording on EU ambitions - to be able to act "in situations where NATO as a whole was not involved" - should reassure Washington that NATO was still the matrix of European security.