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Nato urged to challenge European defence plan
By Judy Dempsey in Brussels
Published: October 16 2003 18:20 | Last Updated: October 16 2003 18:20

The US has called an emergency Nato meeting to challenge the creation of a stronger security and defence policy for the European Union.

The call by Nicholas Burns, US ambassador to Nato, reflects growing unease among Pentagon officials over the way Britain wants to work more closely with its EU allies in building credible defence structures and better military capabilities. But it also highlights tensions in the transatlantic alliance, with the US seeing any future EU defence policy as a potential competitor to Nato.

The US move came as EU leaders met last night to discuss how to make European defence more effective in any new constitutional treaty. The draft treaty is being negotiated in the intergovernment conference that includes the 15 current member and 10 candidate states that join next year.

British, French and German officials on Thursday said it was too early to make any decisions over defence issues. "This is only the beginning. We need a more coherent defence policy that will complement Nato," said one British official.

Nevertheless, the Pentagon and the White House are particularly concerned over how Tony Blair, UK prime minister, wants to co-operate over defence with Germany and France, which opposed the US-led attack on Iraq.

"Somehow the US believes that because Britain is considered its staunchest ally, it cannot work with its EU allies," said one European ambassador. "This is ridiculous. If Blair is involved in Europe it means the transatlantic relationship is protected," he added.

Last month, Mr Blair held a summit in Berlin with French President Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder of Germany. They agreed on "structured co-operation" in which a group of countries would take the lead in improving Europe's military capabilities.

France and Germany quietly dropped the idea of creating an independent military headquarters in Tervuren, near Brussels, something the US and Britain believed was a direct challenge to Nato. However, Mr Blair conceded that the EU did need operation planning headquarters if it was to carry out missions independent of Nato.

Mr Burns, a former US ambassador to Greece and State Department spokesman, lambasted such plans at Wednesday's regular meeting of Nato ambassadors. He said EU defence plans represented "one of the greatest dangers to the transatlantic relationship". He insisted Nato should know what kind of defence policies would be contained in the new treaty.

Benoit D'Aboville, French ambassador to Nato, told Mr Burns Nato had no business knowing about internal matters of the EU until they were agreed by its members.

An EU diplomat said the US believed France was setting a hidden agenda. "It believes Paris will use the trio to gradually strengthen the EU's military capabilities and eventually move away from Nato."

British officials, who on Thursday played down the US criticisms, said a Europe with better military capabilities and with Britain involved would lead to greater burden-sharing, especially in the Balkans.

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