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Europe

Europe, cocked and loaded

The European Union’s member states are embarking on a historic mission, militarily integrating a continent. But many would prefer not to talk about it.

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A British soldier in the Gulf

The military integration of Europe is huge news, without precedent.

The emperors of Rome failed to do it, even in their most ambitious moments. The ministers of the EU think they can.

So when Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel came out Friday with a statement that the EU would "unanimously create a multinational force" to deploy in Afghanistan, it came as a surprise to many.

Most surprised of all were Michel's fellow EU diplomats, who had not been forewarned of his announcement's phrasing and were nervous about potential misunderstandings.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer came out promptly with a correction. “Even if we wanted to (establish an EU force), we could not do it. This is an issue that will be handled in the UN Security Council,” he told reporters.

Britain’s Europe Minister Peter Hain put his country’s spin on the announcement, too: “It is an international force which Europe is giving full support to,” he said.

The rush to contextualise Michel’s statement illustrated just how sensitive the matter of European military integration is, in terms of both international law and national politics in the EU’s 15 member states.

Germany is weighing its position carefully in this case. The government in Berlin has promised "no military adventures”, anticipating an active role in European military affairs, yet seeking to calm a restless German electorate. The federal republic has grown accustomed to the reluctant, limited military role of its last half century.

For the United Kingdom, the nature of European military action is especially important, since British forces are likely to lead a multinational force in post-war Afghanistan. Britain’s traditions of “Euro-scepticism” and independent military identity could easily clash with grander EU aspirations.

If Friday’s announcement signalled the creation of a Euro-army, it’s off to a fractious start. Just the facts

But the EU summit in Laeken, Belgium, has been the occasion for weighty decision-making on the European military front.

Leaders from the member states and the union’s executive European Commission debated the wording of a document Saturday in which they may jointly declare the EU’s military initiative “operational”.

That would mean a limited but formal start to military integration, in the form of a 60,000-strong “rapid reaction force”, which could be deployable within 60 days and able to operate in “hot spots” for 12 months at a time.

A force in Afghanistan would be institutionally separate from those plans.

Greek opposition to the rapid-reaction force has slowed down the diplomatic action in Laeken.

The snag, for the government in Athens, is that an EU force will differ in important ways from the NATO alliance that would largely overlap it, geographically. Turkey, with which Greece has territorial disputes, is a NATO member but only a candidate to join the EU.

If the rapid reaction force is made fully inter-operational with NATO institutions, as some EU member states would like, the government in Athens worries Greek-Turkish relations could be complicated.

Apart from US

The Greek dispute, because of the NATO link, is no small matter.

Potential institutional tensions have long dogged Europe’s efforts to distinguish its military might and foreign policy from those of the United States.

An EU military, theoretically, will be more independent of US policy and prerogative, nowadays channeled to European capitals via Washington’s decision-making power in NATO.

It may sound like a tangle of complex diplomacy, overlapping and conflicting motives, but the European common military initiative has concrete implications.

EU leaders discussed a possible statement Saturday to set themselves apart from a potential expansion of the US-led “war on terror”.

Though British and German soldiers are reportedly active in Afghanistan, in addition to the larger US force, their commanders are less eager to see their theatre of operations grow.

A draft statement from the summit in Laeken, released to the Reuters news agency, said “the approval of the international community must be sought prior to any geographical extension of those operations."

The document did not name the US, but this time the context was clear.

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