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Saturday, 17 February, 2001, 18:21 GMT
Europe's rapid reaction force

What does 60,000 troops, 400 combat aircraft and 100 warships make? And what does it say about the future shape of the European Union?


BACKGROUND

Thirty years ago, the then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger remarked: "Who do I call when I want to get Europe on the phone?"

When the EU appointed the former Nato secretary-general Javier Solana as its first foreign and security policy supremo - and then agreed to pool troops and forces for a rapid reaction force - they may have finally provided an answer.

On Monday 20 November 2000, the EU members agreed to establish a rapid reaction force to be ready for operations by 2003.

The force will be equipped to deal with missions covering the whole range of modern military requirements:

  • Humanitarian and rescue work
  • Crisis management
  • Peace keeping
  • Peace making (effectively military intervention)

    While not a standing army, the force will be capable of going into action within 60 days and remain in operation for a year.

    None of the participating EU members will be obliged to take part in any given operation but, theoretically, it could operate anywhere in the world under the auspices of the United Nations.

    The RRF comes under the command of the member states and not the European Commission - making it a pan-European body but not a Brussels- body.

    However, its workings will be co-ordinated by Javier Solana. Mr Solana is also charged with working out how the new force will fit in with the military alliance.


    DO WE NEED THE RRF?

    While not a new idea, the impetus for its creation gained its momentum in the fall-out of the end of the Cold War.

    Many policy-makers in the United States have long argued that Europe's economic muscle should be matched by an ability to take a greater role in the policing - and funding the policing - of its own backyard.

    EU member states currently have some two million military personnel. They spend more than 100bn on defence, almost two thirds of the US budget, but do not have two-thirds of the corresponding capacity.

    The Balkans conflicts exposed Europe as unable to launch a major military operation without substantial US support.


    The military apparatus remains organised on purely national lines and predominantly geared up for the old Cold War threats of a major European war with each nation effectively duplicating forces and logistics structures.

    The 1990s showed that nations prepared to intervene in overseas crises need to be geared up for rapid and regional missions that need to be sustained for a long time - for instance the conflict in Bosnia.

    The thinking behind the RRF is that the pooling of some of the defence budgets and forces will mean that not only will the EU be able to speak with one voice, it will be able to act as well.


    ROAD TO RRF

    In the late 1980s Paris and Bonn signed the Franco-German brigade agreement. But the first proper step towards an RRF came in the Maastricht Treaty.


    The common foreign and security policy shall include all questions related to the security of the Union, including the eventual framing of a common defence policy, which might in time lead to a common defence.

    Maastricht Treaty
    The treaty, signed by the Conservative Prime Minister John Major, established the principle of developing a common foreign and security policy.

    It includes a clause supporting the development of a common defence policy which, it says, "might in time lead to a common defence."

    In 1998 the UK and France agreed to develop a closer military pact in light of the lessons of the Balkans conflicts. Both nations have been leading supporters of the RRF proposals.


    EUROPEAN ARMY?

    In 1994 Nato signed up to supporting a much stronger European defence apparatus to help better balance the roles and responsibilities of the European and North American Nato members.

    Despite initial encouragement from Washington, the US's new administration now fears that the emergence of a RRF could diminish American influence and, possibly, affect the future of Nato. This growing policy divide is also doing little to help Washington persuade some EU members, notably Germany, of the merits of its missile defence system (see separate brief).

    Firstly, could the RRF operate without the support of Nato? It appears certain that it would need to borrow Nato assets such as heavy air transport.

    But what would happen in future years - would a separate planning structure emerge which, in the view of the US ambassador to Nato, could damage the alliance? Turkey, a Nato member but outside the EU, is already blocking permanent links between the RRF and the alliance.

    The Foreign Affairs select committee has called for the government to clarify the RRF's relationship with Nato and its planned access to assets including, for instance, air bases in Turkey.

    It has warned that it remains to be seen whether "differing interpretations" of the relationship between the two military structures can be reconciled.

    Secondly, who would have first refusal on the troops - the RRF or Nato? The US wants Nato to have first refusal before allowing the EU force to step in where it does not want the alliance to act. How would this be viewed by any future non-Nato members of an RRF?

    Thirdly, is there really a European agenda to downgrade US influence?

    The UK has long had a close relationship with Washington and sees Nato as a vital alliance of Europe and North America.

    But both France and Germany are on record as supporting a force which would be "autonomous" to Nato.


    WESTMINSTER ROW

    The official armed forces line, as declared by the Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Charles Guthrie, is that the force would strengthen Nato rather than weaken it because of the enhanced responsibilities of the EU members of the alliance.


    No European army, no European cap badges, no European flags

    Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon
    Nato's secretary-general George Robertson, a former Labour cabinet minister, agrees.

    Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has stated that there will be: "No European army, no European cap badges, no European flags," stressing that it would be "a British contribution to a European co-operation firmly under British control and deployed at the behest of a British prime minister".

    How that would work in practice is unclear. British troops have operated under foreign command in a peacekeeping capacity in the Balkans.

    Would it be practical - or politically possible - for a nation to withdraw troops because of a command disagreement?

    However, with the UK providing one of most important contributions to the RRF, it's hard to see how the force could operate without a significant British command input.

    The Liberal Democrats take the same broad view and have pressed the government for guarantees that the RRF will not undermine the Nato alliance.

    The Conservatives, however, totally oppose the project.


    If it looks like an elephant and sounds like an elephant, it is an elephant. And this sounds and looks like a European army

    Conservative leader William Hague
    Party leader William Hague said: "It is a military force assembled exclusively by European countries, to be directed by the European Union, wearing arm badges that say they are for the European Union.

    "If it looks like an elephant and sounds like an elephant, it is an elephant. And this sounds and looks like a European army however much [the government] tries to deny it."

    The party has also warned that involvement in RRF missions would further stretch the British military at a time when it already had commitments around the world. Would involvement diminish the national defence?

    The concerns and criticisms have not just come from the Conservatives.

    Former Labour defence and foreign secretaries Lord Healey and Lord Owen wrote to the Daily Telegraph warning of the threat to Nato.

    And General Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley, the former head of Nato's Northern European forces, has predicted that differences between the professional forces of France and the UK and the conscription-based services of other EU nations could pose significant problems.

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