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Europe

Rapid Reaction Force Ready By Year's End

The EU has declared its fledgling rapid reaction force will be ready for peacekeeping missions by the end of the year. A deployment to eastern Congo under a U.N. mandate is being considered.

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The EU took over the peacekeeping mission from NATO in Macedonia.

European Union defense ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday reached an important milestone with the announcement that the EU’s planned 60,000-strong rapid reaction force would likely be ready for deployment to crisis regions by the end of the year.

In a joint declaration, the ministers said the EU was close to being prepared to handle crises running the full gamut of Petersberg Tasks -- an outline of responsibilities for the force laid out during a summit held in a suburb of Bonn, Germany, in 1999. The agreement includes plans that range from dealing with humanitarian and rescue operations to keeping apart warring parties in conflict zones outside and inside Europe.

The EU has already been approached by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Anan to send an EU force to support an emergency U.N. force in eastern Congo, where fighting has left hundreds dead and thousands homeless and hungry. "I have presented the demand to the ministers and in principle they have been positive," EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana told reporters.

Last month, the EU launched its first ever foray into joint peacekeeping by sending a 350-strong force to Macedonia. It is also considering taking the helm of a larger mission to Bosnia, currently being managed by NATO, next year.

Force still lacks crucial capabilities

Despite the considerable momentum behind the project, the ministers conceded that the fledgling crisis management force still lacks vital and expensive military capabilities.

The force suffers from serious defense shortfalls that include transport aircraft, planes capable of air-to-air refueling and sufficient equipment to provide protection from chemical and biological attacks. Additionally, none of the 10 air-to-ground surveillance aircraft pledged by member states has yet materialized.

"These limitations and/or constraints are on deployment time and high risk ... in particular when conducting concurrent operations," they said in the declaration.

The EU has less than six months to go before it is supposed to meet the "Headline Goal," which envisages a 60,000-strong rapid reaction force that could be deployed within 60 days and remain on the ground for up to a year.

British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon said reaching such a goal was unlikely, pointing out that it took 70 days for Britain to deploy 45,000 troops used in the war against Iraq. "My message to colleagues today was that we still have a great deal more to do to meet the shortfalls in capacity," Hoon told reporters on Monday. "My message today was that they can’t put it in a box marked ‘we’ve done that,’ because they haven’t."

Even EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana made no bones about the enormity of the task facing the EU. "It is hardly the time to rest on our laurels," Solana told ministers in Brussels.

Budget shortfalls

In 2001, the EU set up 19 expert panels to identify the biggest shortcomings that would have to be overcome in order to make the joint defense project a success and how to better pool the resources necessary to achieve that goal.

But the defense project has been badly hit with several countries lowering their defense budgets or letting them stagnate in the face of general belt-tightening. "I don’t see signs that countries will increase budgets," an EU military official told Reuters on Monday. "So it’s a question of how willing they are, politically, to coordinate and get better output from what little they are prepared to spend."

Germany wants relaxed spending rules

Among the proposals on the board for rectifying the strained financial situation were efforts to forge a unified and lucrative EU defense industry. But several countries also called for a loosening of the economic pact that ensures the stability of the euro, Europe's common currency.

Germany, France and Italy have called for relaxation of the EU’s strict public spending rules by excluding defense from overall expenditure and thus boosting Europe’s military capabilities. The three countries argued that military spending was being curtailed by the Stability and Growth Pact, which underpins the euro by limiting public expenditure to below three percent of gross domestic product. Europe's total annual defense spending amounts to just €40 billion ($46.8 billion) contrasted with a U.S. military budget of $100 billion a year.

German Defense Minister Peter Struck, whose country is already in breach of the pact, said British criticism that EU defense ministers were failing to improve military capabilities or increase defense budget was completely justified.

Struck said in Brussels on Monday that he was still aiming to increase defense spending in the near future. Germany's current defense budget amounts to €25 billion and accounts for 1.2 percent of German GDP according to Struck. Military investments make up a quarter of the total defense budget. The minister is likely to take up the matter with German Finance Minister Eichel who remains determined to curtail the defense budget. "That is a point, which has to be discussed further," Struck said in Brussels.

Berlin is also increasing its contribution to the EU rapid reaction force by 1,000 soldiers, thus increasing the German contingent to 33,000 troops.

Compiled with information from wire services

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