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Europe

Defense Summit Held by Four EU Nations Wants a Low Profile

A European defense summit held by four nations that opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq begins in Brussels on Tuesday. But France and Germany, anxious to mend ties with the U.S., are now playing down its importance.

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The EU defense summit is expected to discuss plans for an independent European defense force.

A defense summit in Brussels on Tuesday, originally meant to reinforce plans for an integrated European defense policy, has largely downsized its ambitions in the face of growing skepticism and criticism.

The mini-summit called by Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt will see leaders of Germany, France and Luxembourg, all strongly opposed to the U.S.-led war against Iraq, meeting for a half-day of talks in Brussels. Among other things they are expected to discuss controversial proposals by Verhofstadt for a European military headquarters separate from NATO, specific defense spending targets and placing all multinational forces in the EU under a central command.

Summit originally planned to bolster European defense

Verhofstadt launched the idea for the defense summit at the start of the Iraq war, at a time when the European Union was split on the Bush administration’s war plans.

The original aim was to beef up EU defense, thereby giving weight and unity to the region's foreign policy, to avoid member states being dragged into "coalitions of the willing" created by the U.S. The summit participants also hoped to form a core group of like-minded states to push ahead with defense integration. The Belgian Premier 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 initially in particular of Britain, America’s closest ally in the war, was seen as a direct snub to Europe’s most effective military power alongside France.

France and Germany backpedal initial enthusiasm

The swift victory of the U.S. and Britain in Iraq, has seen the original drive to bolster European defense among the nations that support the summit fading. In particular France and Germany, eager to repair strained ties with the U.S. and Britain, have now turned into reluctant supporters of the event.

"The timing could not have been more unfortunate. The French and the Germans want as low a profile as possible. The less we talk about it the better," one EU diplomat told Reuters.

French President Chirac, who angered the U.S. when he said Paris would use its veto to block any Security Council resolution allowing the use of force in Iraq, is now desperate to get back into Washington’s good books. It is believed that Chirac is now anxious to avoid a European defense policy independent of the U.S.-led NATO military alliance.

"Chirac wants this summit to be as unprovocative as possible," an EU diplomat told the Financial Times. "At the same time he wants to support the idea of a stronger European defense policy. It may be a difficult balancing act."

Schröder under pressure

Likewise German Chancellor Schröder, who was a vocal opponent of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and is now eager to repair frayed ties with Washington, is playing down the significance of the summit.

Schröder is also under pressure from the conservative opposition in Germany, who have said that the summit will only further divisions in a Europe already deeply split over Iraq. Last week Angela Merkel, leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU) renewed her party’s call to boycott the summit. She reiterated that a new defense grouping could be used to decouple Europe from NATO and the transatlantic alliance with the United States.

"In my opinion it’s important, especially considering the limited defense budget that we have in Germany, to strengthen NATO and European security policy rather than just part of NATO. We shouldn’t forge new alliances," Merkel said.

Prominent members to stay away

Apart from France and Germany’s reluctance to publicize the defense summit, the meeting on Tuesday also suffers from prominent absences.

Greece, the current EU president, will not be attending, nor will Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief. British officials say they were not invited and add that the summit is unnecessary, while the Netherlands and Italy, the other two founding members of the EU, were also not invited.

"This is a very wobbly summit-like gathering," a Dutch foreign ministry official told the Financial Times. "It is bad on timing, bad on content and bad on the participating states."

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