Summit clears path to new European defense capability


Sun, Oct 19, 2003 - Page 6

The EU pushed ahead on Friday with efforts to build its own defense arm but insisted the plan would neither duplicate nor undermine NATO -- a move aimed at quelling US concerns.

EU leaders, wrapping up a two-day summit in Brussels, also welcomed the unanimous support for the UN resolution on rebuilding Iraq while keeping up pressure for a "realistic schedule" for restoring sovereignty to the Iraqi people.

On all other issues discussed at the summit -- from the bloc's future constitution to providing troops and money to help out in Iraq -- little agreement was reached.

EU foreign policy representative Javier Solana told reporters that work would continue on increasing the EU's ability to operate military or peacekeeping missions independently of NATO.

"The EU needs to have military capability. Nobody doubts ... that," he said at a closing news conference. But he added "the relations between EU and NATO are basic relations and nobody wants to question that or damage that."

The US worries the European defense plans will weaken alliance's unity and complains it is being left in the dark by its allies. On Wednesday, a day before the opening of the summit, comments by the US ambassador to NATO, Nicholas Burns, that the plan represented a significant threat to the alliance provoked heated responses from some European envoys, diplomats said.

Burns called a special meeting of ambassadors from the 19 allies to discuss the issue tomorrow, a day ahead of their regular monthly meeting.

But Italy's Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who chaired the EU summit, said he thought there was nothing to worry about.

"I believe those concerns were understandable but now everything has been clarified," he said. "European defense must complement NATO and by no means be an alternative to NATO."

"Nothing whatsoever must put at risk our essential defense guarantees at NATO," echoed British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In April, on the heels of deep divisions with Washington over war in Iraq, France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg laid out plans for a separate EU military headquarters to run military operations independent of NATO.

Britain at first opposed the plan. But after meeting last month with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Blair appeared to warm to some form of closer EU defense cooperation in return for the others dropping the idea of a new building.

The rift over war in Iraq has yet to heal. EU leaders welcomed the support for the US-drafted resolution as a step in the right direction, but insisted on a "realistic schedule" for the handing over of power to the Iraqi people."

The UN resolution confirms Iraqi sovereignty and the temporary nature of US-led occupation, and commits Iraq's Governing Council to set a timetable by Dec. 15 for adopting a constitution and holding elections.