European leaders attending a controversial defense summit in Brussels on Tuesday agreed to coordinate military operations alongside NATO, while reaffirming their commitment to the transatlantic alliance.
German Chancellor Schröder has backed away from some of Belgian Prime Minister Verhofstadt's proposals.
France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg also said they would develop a European rapid reaction force that would be open to other European Union member states. A Franco-German brigade is expected to form the core of the new force.
The mini-summit -- attended only by nations that opposed the U.S.-led military action in Iraq -- had come under fierce criticism for re-opening the internal rift in the European Union over the war.
Belgium had originally proposed the idea of setting up a European military headquarters separate from NATO. But French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, keen to repair strained ties with Washington over Iraq, distanced themselves from those proposals.
"In NATO, we do not have too much America, we have too little Europe, and that is what we want to change with the proposals we have made," Schröder told a press conference after the two-hour meeting.
Belgium to blame
Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt organized the summit to discuss European defense integration at the beginning of the war in Iraq. But EU countries that backed the U.S. over Iraq, including Britain, Spain and Italy, were not invited. Verhofstadt said that stronger European defense cooperation was the right lesson to be drawn from internal EU squabbling over the war.
Though attempts were made later to open up the summit to other EU members, the exclusion of Britain, America’s closest ally in the war, was seen as a direct snub to Europe’s strongest military power alongside France.
Instead, the leaders proposed the creation of a European Security and Defense Union within the EU, open to all member states that wished to cooperate more closely in the military field and be bound by a mutual defense commitment.
They also outlined seven measures, most of which are already either under way or approved, including the creation of a European rapid reaction force, a European strategic air transport command and fleet, a joint EU nuclear, biological and chemical weapons protection capability and joint training exercises.
"With a view to improving command and control capabilities available to the European Union as well as to NATO, our four defense ministers will take the necessary steps to establish, not later than 2004, a multinational deployable force headquarters for joint operations," the leaders said in statement.
The summit’s original aim had been to beef up EU defense, giving weight and unity to the region's foreign policy, to avoid member states being dragged into "coalitions of the willing" created by the United States.
Weakened by U.S. victory
But the swift American victory in Iraq sapped the meeting of much up its verve. In particular, France and Germany, eager to repair strained ties with the U.S. and Britain, turned into reluctant supporters of the event.
Even though the four leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the transatlantic partnership in their joint communique, NATO still expressed misgivings over the summit's proposals.
Logo of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
"We are concerned about how extra capabilities will be delivered without extra resources, and we are also concerned about the risk of unnecessary duplication," NATO spokesman Yves Brodeur said in a statement.
Schröder on Tuesday also came under renewed attack from the conservative opposition in Germany, who have said the summit serves only to exacerbate existing divisions in a Europe already deeply split over Iraq.
“It’s the wrong initiative at the wrong time because it’s more likely to split Europe and it’s more likely to split NATO,” Wolfgang Schäuble, foreign policy spokesman for the Christian Democrats, told ZDF television.