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EU Fails to Achieve Breakthrough on New Constitution - 2003-10-17

European Union leaders have ended a two-day summit in Brussels with no sign of a breakthrough toward a new constitution. If completed, a new constitution would serve as a rulebook for the EU, as it expands from 15 to 25 countries next year. The leaders also sought to allay U.S. fears that the EU's ambition to create its own military arm could undermine NATO.

The draft for the new European constitution, which has been the subject of ferocious bargaining among EU leaders, contains provisions for closer integration of member countries' military forces. But the United States is worried that such a move would threaten NATO's role as the guarantor of European security.

Washington is especially concerned about a proposal being pushed by France and Germany for the EU to have its own military planning headquarters.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair sought Friday to reassure his American ally that, even though his country believes in enhanced European defense cooperation, it would never undermine the Atlantic Alliance.

"What we want is a situation where NATO is the basis and cornerstone of our defense, where, by preference, NATO, where it wants to be engaged, in other words, where the Americans want to come in on an operation, NATO is going to be the body that we use," said Tony Blair. "But there will be circumstances - we have them now in Macedonia - where America, for one reason or another, doesn't want to be involved. In those circumstances, it's important that Europe has the capability to act independently."

French President Jacques Chirac said his country and Germany would pursue talks with Britain over forging a common EU defense policy. But he acknowledged that a European military capability without Britain would be, "incoherent." Britain and France are the only EU countries to maintain what NATO officials say is an appropriate level of spending on defense.

Most EU countries, including Britain, say the bloc cannot play a central role on the world stage without the backup of an adequate military force.

But as the summit's chairman, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, pointed out through an interpreter, the 25 current and future members of the EU agreed that such a force would not be in conflict with NATO.

"European defense should be complementary to NATO, and it should never be viewed as an alternative to NATO. NATO has been a strong pillar for 50 years of European security, and it should continue to play this role," he said.

The latest transatlantic tiff arose earlier this week when the U.S. ambassador to NATO pressed for an open debate on the EU's defense plans. The French ambassador responded that the EU first needs to thrash out a common defense policy within the confines of the negotiations on its first constitution.

Next week, NATO and EU ambassadors will hold a joint meeting on the issue, and U.S. officials confirmed that Secretary of State Colin Powell will visit Brussels next month for a one-day meeting with his EU counterparts.