EU group to boost military co-operation

FOUR EU countries opposed to the US war in Iraq agreed yesterday to boost their military co-operation, aiming to make Europe’s defence less dependent on the United States.

However, the four countries France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg stressed their plans were not aimed at undermining NATO and would instead strengthen the alliance.

"This is not directed against NATO," said German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder after the meeting in Brussels. "It's a reinforcement of NATO, because it will strengthen the European pillar."

Among the plans agreed by the four leaders are the creation by the summer of 2004 of a military planning centre based in the outskirts of Brussels "for operational planning and command of EU-led operations without recourse to NATO assets".

Other proposals agreed by the four included:

* The creation of a joint rapid reaction unit based around an existing Franco-German brigade into which Belgian commandos and a Luxembourg reconnaissance team will be integrated. This unit will be an extension of the 60,000 force at present being put together by the EU for peacekeeping duties.

* The setting up by next year of a European command for strategic air transport, with a common transport unit to fly troops to trouble spots, a major gap in Europe's military capacity.

* A joint European unit to counter threats from chemical, biological or nuclear attacks.

* A European disaster response system able to deploy civil and military assets within 24 hours.

* European military training centres.

lA European deployable field headquarters.

* A European procurement agency to co-ordinate arms purchases.

The two-hour long meeting in Brussels yesterday drew criticism from officials from Britain, the US and other NATO allies who had warned the four-nation initiative risked aggravating divisions in the Iraq war alliance.

They had cautioned in particular against setting up a European headquarters, warning it risked duplicating or rivalling the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, which directs the alliance's military planning from southern Belgium.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned that they should do nothing to cut across NATO while Italian and Spanish ministers warned that they risked further dividing the EU. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern refused to attend yesterday's meeting.

The leaders of all four countries were at pains to emphasise their actions were designed to strengthen NATO, bring EU members closer and improve the transatlantic relationship.

Several of their proposals are already in the draft constitution on the future of the EU that will come before European leaders in June.

French President Jacques Chirac said he did not expect all EU member states would take part in the core force. Referring to the four neutral countries in the EU which include Ireland, he said: "There are countries with particular characteristics and we will respect them. We do not intend to impose anything."

The plans will be presented to the other 11 EU nations at a meeting of foreign ministers this weekend in Greece and debated in June at a summit of EU leaders in the Greek city of Thessaloniki.

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