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Saturday, 9 December, 2000, 00:37 GMT
Blair hails defence deal
Tony Blair
A European Union agreement on a proposed Rapid Reaction Force has been hailed as a "victory" for the UK by Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The declaration at the Nice summit specifically links the force to Nato - as demanded by the UK but opposed by France.

While welcoming the deal, Mr Blair also stressed he would not be making concessions on his summit negotiating position.

European defence is not in any shape or form a rival to Nato

Tony Blair
He met privately with French President Jacques Chirac on Friday night as they and other EU leaders attempted to thrash out an accord to pave the way for European enlargement.

The defence declaration specifically rules out the establishment of a European army.

It attempts to dispel fears of a split between the EU and Nato by underlining that the Atlantic alliance continues to form the basis for the EU's collective defence.

France wanted the force to have an independent planning structure.

Mr Blair said: "Again, in this announcement over defence we made it absolutely clear that European defence cannot be a rival to Nato, it has to be a complement to it and this is exactly what has happened.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair: Willl not budge from "absolute red lines"
"It's not simply a victory for Britain, it's a victory for common sense."

He added: "What's important to recognise is that there's now a very established consensus that European defence is not in any shape or form a rival to Nato."

A key issue under discussion at the summit is the extension of Qualified Majority Voting to areas where the 15 existing member states could previously use their veto.

Also up for reform is the re-weighting of those votes to maintain a bigger say for larger nations.

Mr Blair said: "We set out very clearly where there are particular positions, for example in relation to tax and the social security system, where we think this is the province of national governments and national parliaments - but of course we want to make sure we have a successful summit.

"But we have got absolute red lines we have laid down."

No concessions

He was speaking amid reports that other nations might now be prepared to move on similar issues.

However, Mr Blair gave no sign that the UK was prepared to make concessions.

His meeting with Mr Chirac was one of a series of so-called "confessionals" taking place in a bid to break the deadlock at the summit and reach agreement on Saturday.

Mr Blair added: "It isn't necessary for enlargement (of the EU) to succeed that we start having Brussels decide either our tax rates or our social security levels."

Robin Cook
Mr Cook said the declaration would strengthen the Alliance
Support for the defence deal also came from Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who said the deal would enhance crisis management and make the entire continent "safer and more secure".

The final text setting out the key conditions for the force says the EU is adding to existing available options "an autonomous capacity to take decisions and action in the security and defence field".

The accord includes statements that the Rapid Reaction Force will only launch operations "where Nato as a whole is not engaged" and will leave Nato as the basis of the collective defence of its members.

Tory protests

Crucially, it also states the force "does not involve the establishment of a European army".

Mr Blair is content that the wording deflates Tory attempts to paint the force as a standing European army under the control of Brussels.

However, shadow defence secretary Ian Duncan Smith went on the attack, insisting: "The prime minister promised to safeguard Nato. He has failed.

"This agreement is full of hot air and waffle."

It approved "an independent and autonomous European defence identity with only ad hoc arrangements linking it to Nato", he added.

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See also:

08 Dec 00 | Europe
Hard bargaining ahead for EU
07 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Blair talks up EU summit hopes
07 Dec 00 | Nice summit glossary
Charter of Fundamental Rights
07 Dec 00 | Europe
Press gets Nice fever
07 Dec 00 | Europe
Eyewitness: Not so Nice
06 Dec 00 | Europe
Schroeder plea for Nice accord
04 Dec 00 | Europe
France: Agenda too far removed?
06 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Row over 'secret EU superstate'
08 Dec 00 | Europe
EU tackles its own divisions
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