Now US can ring up 'Mr. Europe'

NATO chief Javier Solana to become the European Union's chief diplomat,

The choice of Javier Solana as Europe's first foreign policy supremo, due to be announced at a summit of continental leaders today, could not have been better calculated to reassure the United States that while Europe seeks to speak with one voice on the world stage, it does not intend to shout Washington down.

The affable Spaniard's leadership as secretary-general of NATO over the past four years has given US officials ample opportunity to study his pro-American credentials, and his penchant for consensus over confrontation.

Mr. Solana's nomination "is an excellent signal to the Americans," says Charles Grant, head of the London-based Centre for European Reform, an independent think tank. "A European foreign policy will not be successful if it is seen as competing with the Americans, only if it cooperates with them."

The European Union's creation of the new post of high representative for foreign and security policy is a key step toward forging a common, Europe-wide approach to international questions, and toward backing that approach with military muscle.

At the two-day summit, which began yesterday in Cologne, Germany, EU heads of state are also giving the union - hitherto a primarily economic arrangement - authority to order military action in crisis spots, and to make member states develop the military capabilities needed for such action.

This step toward an autonomous European military force follows a Franco-German decision last week to make the Eurocorps, a mixed brigade of troops from France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Spain, into the kernel of a new European rapid-reaction force.

In some countries these moves toward a united Europe, armed with an independently led military, have taken a distinctly anti-American tone.

"We must make Europe, already the biggest economic power in the world, a political and military power too, to make sure that there is not just one policeman, the United States," declared Franois Hollande, a leader of the ruling French Socialist party, recently.

Solana's background makes him well placed to smooth any American feathers that might be ruffled by such talk. Although in his younger socialist days in Madrid he campaigned for the closure of US military bases in Spain, and to keep Spain out of NATO, he is now an ardent convert to the transatlantic alliance. His NATO experience clearly reinforces the message that European leaders are seeking to send: that the EU wants to back its foreign policy with genuine military operational capabilities with forces that can react quickly and work together.

But it carries the twin signal that the EU intends to act militarily under the NATO umbrella, not to create a duplicate structure, much less an alternative or rival institution. The idea, officials say, is that eventually the EU would be able to deploy European troops under European command to carry out peacekeeping or crisis-management tasks in which Washington did not want to participate. If necessary, they could use NATO assets - an arrangement to which NATO has already agreed.

The Kosovo crisis has played an important role in catalyzing European thinking on these issues, analysts say. For a start, the negotiations designed to avert outright war, held in the French town of Rambouillet, failed to secure an agreement.

"We were humbled," recalls Guido Lenzi, head of the Paris-based Institute for Security Studies, a think tank linked to the EU's fledgling defense arm, the Western European Union. "The Europeans found that they could not conduct hard-nosed negotiations at Rambouillet because they did not have any forces even in theory to back them up. For the umpteenth time, Europe was made to look ineffective."

The road to an autonomous European military force is likely to be a long and expensive one. Currently, only Britain and France have the capability to deploy significant numbers of soldiers far from home. Germany, the largest European nation, has a large, conscript army better adapted to fighting a potential Soviet invasion on its home ground than to rapid "firefighting" operations abroad, and few other European forces have done much to restructure and re-equip themselves to meet post-cold-war emergencies.

The bombing campaign against Yugoslavia "has brought home to Europeans that they cannot do anything militarily," points out Mr. Grant. "Europe spends almost half as much as Washington on defense, but it has only 10 percent of America's ability to deploy force abroad."

AS Europe's cumbersome armies reorganize themselves, Solana's task will be to forge common policies behind which the 15 EU member states can rally. While the crises in Bosnia and Iraq showed up the splits among European governments, Kosovo offered a more hopeful precedent.

But the NATO chief, a former Spanish foreign minister, has the international weight to make EU ministers listen to him, as well as the diplomatic skills to avoid treading on too many toes as he gives his new job real meaning. He also has sufficient clout to hold Washington's attention, analysts believe.

"What has been missing between America and Europe is political consultation early on" as particular problems have built up, complains Lenzi. "What needs to happen now that we have a 'Mr. Common Foreign and Security Policy' is consultations on the makings of a crisis, not just last-minute discussions for operational purposes."

Henry Kissinger famously asked once, "When I want to call Europe, what number do I ring?"

"Now," adds Lenzi, "the Americans can't say they don't have Mr. Europe's phone number."

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