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4 EU Countries Announce Plans to Increase Defense Capabilities - 2003-04-29

Four European countries announced plans Tuesday to establish a European Union military planning center that does not involve NATO.

Besides plans for building the new European military center, the four countries outlined proposals to create a joint rapid reaction unit, and a European command center for strategic air transport. They also made plans to, among other things, cooperate in fighting chemical and biological threats, in responding to disasters, and in coordinating arms purchases.

At a news conference following the summit, the four leaders stressed those plans were not designed to rival or to undermine European cooperation or the NATO alliance.

The four leaders insisted that NATO remains a cornerstone of European defense policy.

Though not all EU countries were invited to the Brussels summit, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said he expected the other 11 European Union members would welcome the seven proposals outlined at the summit.

In remarks broadcast on French radio, the Belgian prime minister described the summit's proposals as a very important step forward in building up Europe's defense capabilities.

But critics have already attacked the closed-invitation mini-summit, which did not include key European countries like Britain. Observers say the summit's proposal to create a new security and defense union for Europe may actually hinder efforts to create a united European approach to defense.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently warned against proposals that might hinder efforts to create a common European defense, or undermine military relations with the United States.

Spain, Italy and the Netherlands also expressed skepticism about the defense summit. Spain's foreign minister said Tuesday that European defense policy could not be decided by just four countries.

Three of the summit's participants, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, are among the smallest military spenders in NATO. France, however, is second only to Britain in European military expenditures, earmarking about 2.5 percent of its gross domestic income on the military last year.