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Monday, 20 November, 2000, 17:17 GMT
Euro army widens political splits
British soldiers in Kosovo
Force would be peacekeeping and humanitarian only
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Plans to create a European "army" go to the core of the political divisions over Europe.

As a result, much of the argument over the idea of an EU-wide rapid reaction force has little to do with military concerns and everything to do with politics.

The issue has been seized on by the Euro-sceptics as the clearest indication yet that Labour is happy to drive Britain into a United States of Europe.

The government, on the other hand, insists that the proposal is a perfectly common-sense one that could avert the sort of confusion seen at the beginning of the Balkans conflicts.

There are undoubtedly significant military concerns over the force - particularly in Britain where the armed forces are already desperately overstretched.

British soldier
Fears of a Euro army
But it is clear that many of those on both sides of the argument are using it as a way of furthering their causes.

Eurosceptics believe the move is the thin end of the wedge and will inevitably lead to the creation of a European Army with a single cap badge operating under a single command.

They claim its creation is another step towards political integration of the EU into a superstate and the abandonment of British sovereignty.

And any suggestion of the merging of British troops with French and German ones raises all sorts of emotional reactions.

Alarmist talk

They claim that the inevitable outcome would see British troops being ordered into conflicts by Brussels, with little or no veto from the government.

They also point to significant US voices, such as the vice-president of the Centre for Defence Information, Admiral Eugene Carroll, declaring the force represented "threat" to American influence in Europe.

The government, meanwhile, is accusing the sceptics of using alarmist talk about the force in a calculated attempt to undermine the EU.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon insisted that the significant contribution of British forces does not amount to the creation of a Euro army.

He pointed out the force will not be a standing army or a fighting force but one designed specifically for peace keeping and humanitarian roles.

US support

And he stressed that no decision on the deployment of British troops could be taken without the say so of the prime minister and government.

The idea of the European Commission having any say in the deployment has been ridiculed as "garbage" by Downing Street.

And ministers have also insisted that the existence of the force would do nothing to undermine Nato.

They claim the overwhelming view of the US military and both Democrat and Republican politicians supports the notion of the EU taking on a greater part of the military burden in Europe.

And, of course, the timing of the row is hugely significant. The looming EU summit in Nice will see Mr Blair accused of handing over even more sovereignty to Brussels over the veto.

And, with Britain's entry into the euro set to become a major general election issue, the Euro-sceptics are seizing on any evidence that the prime minister is in favour of an EU superstate.

The danger in all this is that any sensible debate about the need for, and the operation of an EU rapid reaction force will get lost in the fog.

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