Blair sabotages French plan for EU army.
Britain will attempt to derail moves led by France to build an EU defence force outside the command structure of Nato by promoting a rival plan this week.
The Times has learnt that Britain will propose the creation of a dedicated EU military "planning cell" to strengthen Europe's defence capability. It will be based in Nato's military headquarters in Mons to avoid undermining the 50-year-old alliance.
The move is Britain's opening shot in what is expected to be a bitter battle this autumn with France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, which have formed a breakaway group to press ahead with plans for an autonomous European force.
Tony Blair clashed with President Chirac and Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, when they formally launched the group in April, at the height of EU feuding over war in Iraq. The Prime Minister said that he would block anything that threatened to undermine Nato.
M Chirac believes that Europe needs a greater defence capability and should not have to defer to Nato before deploying troops. He scored an important victory over Mr Blair when "enhanced co-operation" on defence was supported in the final draft of the controversial new EU constitution. Mr Blair has said that he will block those sections when discussions on the document start in October.
A dedicated military planning cell allied to Nato would give EU operations a "proper identity" and stop support for French ideas gaining momentum, according to British officials who drew up the plans. They are confident that Italy, Spain, Ireland and a large number of the new members from Eastern Europe will back the proposal.
Under existing procedures, EU defence officials can only advise ministers on whether a European force should be deployed. Once the political decision has been taken, Nato takes on full responsibility for military planning.
Britain has circulated its proposal to all 25 EU members in a paper entitled Food for Thought before a meeting in Rome on Friday.
However, ministers are braced for criticism from the Conservatives, who are likely to argue that any further co-operation on defence would undermine British sovereignty. France and other members of the breakaway group may also reject the proposals, saying they do not go far enough. The group, which may be joined by Greece, plans to hold another meeting in September.
A Foreign Office source said that its proposals struck the right balance between enhancing the EU's military operations without "reinventing the wheel". He said: "We are very positive about the defence process. We started it, and are fully behind the independent EU operations mounted in Macedonia and Congo.
"We have to make sure we have got the right capacity to plan and carry out these operations and are proposing a way to do that within existing EU and Nato structures."
If successful, the British plan would clear the way for the removal of controversial sections on defence in the EU constitution, which Mr Blair has said cross one of Britain's "red lines". Horse-trading on the constitution begins in October with the start of the Inter-Governmental Conference.
Britain intends to set out its "red lines" in a White Paper on September 8, when Parliament returns from the summer recess, kicking off a week of debate on the subject. Britain also intends to block sections in the constitution proposing a more integrated EU approach to tax matters.
However, Britain is willing to compromise on other areas to get its way on tax and defence. It will largely accept proposals for a new EU foreign minister, although it wants to make sure the figure reports primarily to ministers and not the European Commission. It will also go along with moves for closer co-operation on social security.
[Source: By Rosemary Bennett, Deputy Political Editor, The Times, London, UK, 25Aug03]
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