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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 August 2006, 11:42 GMT 12:42 UK
EU facing test over Lebanon force
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

French troops arriving in Lebanon
France has not supplied as many troops as the UN hoped for

The European Union is struggling to find the necessary unity of purpose as the UN looks to it to provide the backbone of the new international force to police southern Lebanon.

A meeting of foreign ministers is to take place on Friday, to be attended by the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. This meeting should determine who is going to step up to the plate, and who is not.

Ideally, the UN would like the EU to provide about 9,000 of the proposed force of some 15,000. It is more likely to be about 7,500.

This is yet another test for the EU's hopes of developing a common foreign and security policy - and so far it has wobbled.

French role

Already, France has disappointed the UN by wavering. It took a leading role in the framing of the ceasefire resolution and offered to lead the force, before developing doubts and stepping back.

It has agreed to send only 200 troops so far, though it says more might be forthcoming if the mandate for the force is properly worked out. It already has 200 troops in the exisitng Un force Unifil.

Update:The French paper Le Monde has said that France will announce an increase but will probably send fewer than the 2000 at first indicated. President Chirac is to go on television on Thursday evening.

Italy has come forward with an offer both of leadership and of some 3,000 troops.

We cannot send our soldiers into Lebanon if the IDF continues to shoot
Italian Foreign Minister Massimo-D'Alema

The Financial Times, a newspaper read and respected in the halls of diplomacy in Europe, has said: "Europe's pretensions look ragged, and even more so France's hopes of being taken seriously in Washington."

However, there are real issues here about what the force should or will be able to do.

The Israelis had demanded that it be robust enough to take on Hezbollah if necessary, but that is probably not going to happen.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said the force would have two main tasks.

"On the one hand it will be there to enable the Lebanese army to deploy, and on the other hand it will be there to safeguard the arms embargo at all the borders. I repeat, at all the borders," he told France 2 television.

No sign there of any role in enforcing a peace. The risk is that the new force will fall into the ways of the existing UN force, Unifil, which was sent into southern Lebanon after the Israeli operation there in 1978, and which has done little except monitor fighting ever since.

Israeli demands

In Israeli eyes, unless the force does its job, Israel will not lift the blockade of Lebanon and the full withdrawal of its troops will be in doubt.

The extent of Israel's commitment to the ceasefire is equally something that worries the EU, given that Israel reserves the right to self-defence as it sees fit.

"We cannot send our soldiers into Lebanon if the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] continues to shoot," said Italian Foreign Minister Massimo-D'Alema.

So some of these problems are not of the EU's making. What is at issue is whether the EU can make itself an effective part of the solution.

EU states also want the force to have a right to self-defence that does not get it dragged into conflict with the parties. This is especially sensitive for Germany. The idea of German forces firing on Israelis is not conceivable to the German government. That is why it is talking of sending only police officers to operate on the ground, as well as naval forces to patrol the Lebanese coast.

In fact, the naval force is potentially quite a big operation.

John Palmer, of the European Policy Centre in Brussels, said: "French experience and bitter memories in Lebanon [France suffered heavily in an attack by Hezbollah in 1983] are perhaps making it play hardball.

"I do not see this as a fundamental difference of opinion within the EU, but the proof of this pudding will be in the eating."

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