CONSENSUS is forming that a nine-nation organization, which until now has been little more than a debate club, should evolve into Europe's main security and defense entity, often called the European security ``pillar.'' The question is how this should be done.
Members of the organization, called the Western European Union, envision the WEU as a bridge between the European Community and NATO, forming a sort of caucus within NATO that would more strongly voice European opinion and take on more responsibility.
Unlike NATO, the WEU is not limited to defending just NATO territory. The WEU could therefore become engaged in areas such as the Middle East, Africa, or Eastern Europe, said WEU Secretary General Willem van Eekelen at a weekend conference on security issues sponsored by the German-Atlantic Society in K"onigswinter, near Bonn.
Although there are plenty of problems in strengthening the WEU, said Mr. van Eekelen in an interview, the main one at the moment lies with the Americans, who say a WEU caucus could form a bloc in NATO that might split, rather than strengthen, the Atlantic alliance.
The United States backs the development of a European security organization that would bear more responsibility, project a European voice, cooperate with NATO, and be able to act outside the NATO area. It agrees that the WEU could fulfill this role. But shortly before WEU foreign and defense ministers met in Paris last Friday, where they supported the idea of the WEU becoming the European security and defense pillar, the US sent a letter to the WEU capitals voicing concern about a WEU caucus approach in NATO. There should be no alliance within an alliance that prevents individual nations from acting independently, Washington says.
``We'll have to talk a lot more to the Americans and explain that their suspicions are unwarranted,'' van Eekelen said.
Rather than splitting the alliance, van Eekelen says that forming consensus on issues in the WEU, and then presenting this consensus via WEU member nations in NATO, would reinvigorate NATO. It would lead to quicker decisionmaking and more useful dialogue, he said, because nine of the 16 NATO members would be acting together, rather than each one presenting its own, sometimes slight, variation on a theme.
``Today, much of what is being done [in NATO] comes from US initiatives,'' says Prosper Thuysbaert, Belgian ambassador to NATO. With a stronger WEU, ``maybe some of the initiatives can come from Europe.''
But, as the Gulf war has shown, getting Europeans to agree on security issues is difficult. Some Europeans wonder if it would not be better first to tackle the job of political union and define common security goals, before building up another organization. And although the WEU has the advantage of being able to operate out of the NATO area, this activity would likely be in developing areas of the world, where European nations have conflicting, historical interests.
Other challenges in adding strength to the WEU include:
WEU members. Of the 12 member-nations in the European Community and the 16 in NATO, only nine belong to the WEU. Several non-WEU members, such as Turkey, resent being left out of WEU, especially as it takes on more importance. Van Eekelen wants to work with the present membership until it becomes clear how many countries will belong to the European political union. Then, he says, the membership of WEU should mirror that of the unified Europe.
WEU military forces. The WEU would not build up its own forces. It would use NATO forces corresponding to WEU member countries. Van Eekelen hopes rapid deployment forces that could meet WEU out-of-area needs could be worked into NATO's present strategy review.
WEU's home. The WEU wants to move its secretariat from London to Brussels, home of the European Community and NATO. The chief disagreement among WEU members during the last three months has been whether to put the WEU under the control of the European Community, as Germany and France propose, or to link it more closely to NATO, which appeals to the British and Dutch.
Van Eekelen's compromise is to make WEU a ``bridge'' between both organizations, able to carry out guidelines from the European Community heads of state (but not being under its direct control) while still having a strong voice in NATO, possibly through NATO officials and diplomats wearing two hats, the other being the WEU hat.
The argument over what organization should control the WEU still goes on, says Van Eekelen, but it is quieting down. ``It's not a big enough problem to stop us from thinking'' about the WEU's future role, he says.