NYT - Military posture of Europe to turn more independent

December 13, 1999

By CRAIG R. WHITNEY

PARIS -- By deciding to equip itself to send up to 60,000 troops to a crisis zone like Bosnia or Kosovo, the European Union aims to become a strategic player that the United States and other countries will have to reckon with.

French officials, chafing under what some of them call American "hyperpower," have long wanted to make Europe a political and military power as well as an economic colossus.

Now other European leaders have adopted the military goal, agreeing at a meeting on Friday in Helsinki to build the command and planning staffs, intelligence bases, and the decision-making and deployment apparatus needed to realize their new ambition by 2003.

The allies in the 15-member union, including France, pledged that Europe's new military strength would not detract from, but instead would contribute to, the cohesion and effectiveness of the NATO alliance.

"If Europe takes on more responsibility by building up its military strength, that will contribute to the long-term equilibrium of the alliance," said Defense Minister Alain Richard of France in an interview. "Now the European Union is stepping up to its responsibilities and over the next few years will become a genuine actor on the scene, one that didn't exist before."

The allied military structure is led and dominated by the United States. During the recent NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, it became clear that Europe was lagging in the ability to assemble or transport sizable peacekeeping forces quickly, and was in danger of falling far behind advanced American military technology, leading to the push for European improvements.

Germany's chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, recently explained his thinking, saying, "The Europe of the future must be able to defend its interests and values effectively worldwide." As far as Europe's military is concerned, he said, "close and confidential cooperation between the European Union and NATO" is essential. "There must and will be no thought of competition here," he added.

Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, without whose support the plan would never have been conceived, has also made clear that the NATO alliance would remain the bedrock of European security.

For the moment, American military and civilian officials are taking such assurances at face value.

Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the American who is NATO's top military commander, put it this way recently: "I think anything that increases the overall capabilities of the members of NATO in the defense area is commendable and we should be pushing it. We've got to make sure the institutions, as they emerge, and the linkages, as they emerge, in fact do that."

The main American concern, as General Clark put it, is "decoupling or duplication or discrimination against non-European Union, European members of NATO," and here the new European plan has the potential to cause long-term irritation for the United States.

Richard, the French defense minister, concedes the possibility for concern. "What fear of duplication really conceals is worry about the appearance of a new political partner, the European Union," he said. "It's a new situation that's a bit disturbing, that upsets old habits, because at the moment, inside the Atlantic alliance, there are only dispersed European states -- the only common, cohesive element is NATO itself."

He and other French officials said the military staff that the European Union would set up in Brussels would be nowhere near the size of the NATO military staff, down the road at General Clark's headquarters in Mons. A European military secretariat reporting to Javier Solana, former secretary general of the alliance, will decide how many military planners the European Union needs in a new general staff, Richard said.

"I'm persuaded that it should be basically rather modest," he said. Other French officials said a European general staff would probably number no more than a few hundred officers, who would draw heavily on planning done by their counterparts in the member states.

The new European defense structure would also include a military committee of chiefs of national defense staffs to advise the European leaders, who would decide when and where to send forces.

The 60,000 troops earmarked for European use in a crisis would be the same ones NATO could use if it decided to get involved, French officials said.

Richard said the European plan is consistent with the alliance's "defense capabilities initiative," a plan adopted at a NATO summit meeting last April to improve the effectiveness of future multinational military operations like the bombing campaign in Yugoslavia.

"The requirements, the performance levels, the expected specifications are all the same," Richard said, and duplication will be minimal, though American officials are not so sure.

Richard contends that the United States should help contribute to a new strategic balance within the alliance by allowing the American military to buy more arms from European defense industries.

"I have told our American friends several times that in our opinion -- and this isn't just a French view -- even if it's unintended, security regulations and limits on access to the American market are a real impediment to the existence of a trans-Atlantic market," he said. "It's a delicate subject, because it has to do with national security concerns that are legitimate and respectable, and it's not a subject that will be solved with loud public discussions."

American officials in Europe agree and are concerned that resentment at American strategic, technological and economic superiority could bring a resurgence of anti-Americanism.

"Fiery rhetoric and anti-American tirades by some senior leaders in Europe complicate this situation immensely, and are difficult to ignore on our side of the Atlantic," Jacques S. Gansler, a senior Pentagon official, warned a gathering of French defense industrialists in Toulouse last week.

In Washington, France has not been seen as trustworthy in handling American defense secrets as Britain is.

Gansler said in Toulouse that the United States wants more trans-Atlantic defense industry cooperation but insisted that effective safeguards by the allies for the American technology they wanted were "an absolute prerequisite."

Richard said, "I think the United States side needs to think about this to see if they aren't in danger of closing the American market to European producers."

But it was Britain, which long refused to discuss with its European partners any security arrangements outside of NATO, that finally allowed France to achieve its longstanding ambition to lead Europe to a modest autonomous defense capability of its own. Blair agreed on that objective with President Jacques Chirac of France more than a year ago, setting the stage for European leaders to adopt the plan last June in Cologne and to spell it out during the weekend in Helsinki.

At the insistence of Britain and other allies, including Germany and the Netherlands, the leaders agreed that Europe would deploy forces on its own only in situations where the alliance -- meaning, in effect, the United States -- had decided not to get involved.

"That's the condition, that's the agreement," Richard said, adding that he had told Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen in Brussels early this month that France and the United States were pulling on the same string by insisting that some of the allies should increase defense spending, for NATO's sake as well as for Europe's.

"I think it's not realistic for Europeans to say we are spending enough and that all we need to do is create more synergy and achieve more efficient cooperation," Richard said. He said he thought that the commitment made for spending on new equipment was less than what it should be.

According to alliance figures, the United States spends about 3.2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, down from 6 percent during the cold war, with France and Britain spending 2.8 and 2.6 percent, respectively. But Germany spends only 1.5 percent and Spain 1.4 percent.

France, another French defense official said, will press its European partners to set spending targets for buying the new satellite-based navigation and guidance systems, fighter planes and transport aircraft that will be needed to make a European fighting force ready to be deployed within 60 days, the target set by the Helsinki plan.

"It may be easier, actually, for the Europeans to agree not to fall below these spending targets than it would be for them to agree to them as part of a NATO plan," the French official said. "There they could always fall short and say the United States had pressed them to accept unrealistic goals."

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