Solana upbeat on EU force

RETHYMNON (Reuters) – The European Union said its planned Rapid Reaction Force was on course yesterday despite flagging political will and a lack of money to fill gaping holes in the bloc’s military capability. «I can tell you honestly that I am very impressed by the work that has been done,» EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said after the first day of an EU defense ministers’ meeting in the Cretan town of Rethymnon. «It is not an easy job. But I think we are moving in the right direction, at a pace which is not the speed of light but is pretty close to the speed of sound.» The ministers began with a discussion of the standoff between Greece and Turkey over a deal guaranteeing the EU access to NATO planning, and logistical and intelligence assets. This has thwarted hopes that the EU’s crisis management force would make a peacekeeping debut in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) this year when NATO’s mandate ends on October 26. Solana said the EU-NATO agreement was now «closer than ever» and voiced optimism that it could even be wrapped up before Turkey’s November 3 general elections, opening the way for the EU to take over in FYROM at the end of the year. The shadow of possible US-led military action against Iraq hung over the meeting. The issue was expected to come up over dinner and Britain – alone in Europe in backing Washington – was expected to discuss it with France in a bilateral meeting. Some 300 left-wing students and anarchists protested peacefully in Rethymnon against the US policy on Iraq. Today, demonstrators plan to block the road outside the hotel where the defense ministers are meeting. The EU’s aim is to be able to deploy military forces of up to 60,000 with air and naval support within 60 days and sustain them for at least a year.