NEWS

EU chiefs set to kickstart defense

BRUSSELS – The European Union’s rapid reaction force will be declared operational at a summit of EU leaders tomorrow and Saturday, even if it isn’t ready yet to put all its troops on the ground. From next year, the 60,000-man force, to be drawn from the armed forces of the 15 EU member states, should be able to go out on relatively straightforward missions, such as humanitarian relief or getting EU citizens out of war zones. The member states will examine, on a case-by-case basis, whether the EU actually has the military capacity at the time to undertake this or that operation, a European diplomat explained. Military experts are seeking to determine, however, whether defense spending in Europe is sufficiently robust for the EU member states to meet their own deadline of 2003 for getting the force up to full speed. Then there’s the prickly matter of satisfying Greek and Turkish concerns over an agreement that would give the EU assured access to NATO assets, such as radar planes and operational planning talents. EU heads of state and government agreed at their Helsinki summit two years ago to establish, by 2003, a rapid reaction force capable of deploying within 60 days for periods of one year or more. It would be limited to handling so-called Petersberg tasks: humanitarian relief missions, peacekeeping and crisis management. The idea is a direct response to Europe’s embarrassing failure to intervene in the wars that broke out on its Balkan doorstep in the early 1990s when the former Yugoslavia broke up.When it goes into action, the force will be able to draw on a pool of 100,000 troops, 400 warplanes and 100 naval ships pledged by the member states. In Brussels, the EU already has in place a political and security committee, known by the French acronym COPS, to handle the political side of any intervention. COPS has a military counterpart, led by the Finnish General Gustav Haegglund, that can give EU decision-makers a military perspective on conflict situations. There is also a headquarters staff of 130 officers, headed by German General Rainer Schuwirth and working out of a discreet Brussels office building with reinforced security. Speaking at last week’s NATO foreign minister’s meeting, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he hopes a final agreement on a EU-NATO pact can be clinched at the summit, if not before. Turkey, which has been blocking a deal for more than a year, has indicated it would accept a compromise that would include a written EU promise not to intervene in any conflict it might have with Greece. Turkey, a strategic NATO member and EU candidate, wants to be sure it does not find itself on the sidelines whenever the EU asks for NATO’s help for any deployment close to its borders, such as in the Balkans or Central Asia. But Greece, which has outstanding disputes with Turkey over Cyprus and the Aegean Sea, wants assurances that its interests will not suffer as a result of the compromise brokered by the UK and USA. We’re hoping to resolve this question at the summit, the European diplomat said, adding, however, that the rapid reaction force will be declared operational whether there’s an agreement or not. The respected International Institute of Strategic Studies in London has meanwhile raised disturbing questions as to whether the relatively low level of defense spending planned by EU member states is enough for their 2003 deadline to be met. EU member states currently lack the capabilities necessary to organize, deploy and sustain the rapid reaction force on a long-term, high-level Petersberg task, it wrote in its yearly publication The Military Balance. And it’s barely conceivable that these shortfalls could be met in a little over 24 months, even given the political determination to achieve this, it said.