Daily Telegraph
Chirac seeks to speed up EU defence programme

Harry de Quetteville

Wednesday 31 May 2000

Paris - President Chirac has called for "reinforced co-operation" between EU countries to implement the European defence project.

In a speech seen as an attempt to stamp his authority on European policy, he said that harmonising the foreign and defence policies of member states would be a key to France's six-month presidency of the EU, which begins in July. But he shied away from the federal vision of Europe set out two weeks ago by Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister. Effectively dismissing the idea, he said it was the "vanity of abstract definitions of a political Europe".

He made it clear that he considered Mr Fischer's ideas applied to a theoretical future, "far beyond the term of the French presidency of the EU", and had little short-term relevance. Instead, M Chirac said that a strong Europe should come from "a natural convergence of national concerns" and he warned of the "authoritarian imposition of that convergence by a few leaders keen for conquest".

His speech to the presidents of the parliamentary assembly of the Western European Union was a reminder that France intends to drive through the common European defence project, begun by France and Britain in 1998. He said that under France's presidency individual member states would be encouraged to finalise their contributions to the 60,000-strong EU force agreed upon at last December's Helsinki summit.

He said: "We need watertight political will to achieve it [the force]. But this objective is now within our grasp. It depends on each country, at a national level, making the necessary defensive efforts." He also argued in favour of the creation of a southern European rapid reaction force to co-ordinate "command structure, intelligence and transportation". He said: "There is a place for. . . a new European rapid reaction force to intervene in the space north of the Mediterranean."

But M Chirac denied that progress towards a common European defence was threatened by the reluctance of some member states to take part. He said: "Any of the 15 [member states] who want to join this effort will be welcome, but those who don't want to go so far ... need not stop the more audacious from moving forward."

He also defended the scheme against suggestions that those unwilling to contribute would get left behind by the "more audacious" as an elite within the EU. He said: "It's natural that in any group there is a leading group progressing more rapidly." Any progression was "towards an objective defined by common agreement".

He insisted that this would reinforce the European Union without isolating either America or Nato. He said: "Beyond mere words, Europe must reply to a need and play a major role for peace in the world." But he criticised the American missile defence system, which, he said, could lead to a renewal of the arms race.

M Chirac has already said that France would be dealing mostly with the details of institutional reform during its term at the head of the EU. The rapid and complicated expansion that looms in its immediate future has been overshadowed by Mr Fischer's outline of his "federalist", long-term vision. Yesterday, M Chirac made it plain that he did not consider it helpful.

Original article