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European force 'no threat to NATO'

U.S. Defence Secretary William Cohen
William Cohen's forceful comments took Europeans by surprise  

LONDON, England -- Britain's defence secretary has moved to reassure his U.S. counterpart that the planned European Rapid Reaction Force will not undermine NATO.

Geoff Hoon said it was "quite clear" that Britain would not sign up for anything that in any way jeopardised either the alliance or London's relationship with Washington.

The minister's comments followed U.S. Defence Secretary William Cohen's warning that if the new force were to be set up as a competing structure, NATO could become a "relic of history".

Cohen's words came on the eve of the 15-nation European Union summit in Nice, France, at which heads of government will take the next formal steps in setting up the force.

"If we do not get the arrangements that we are negotiating for, then we would have the very greatest difficulty in signing up for this," Hoon told BBC radio.

Shared planning facilities

Hoon insisted that in his speech on Tuesday, Cohen had essentially set out Britain's own view of the force, which aims to have a capacity of 60,000 ground troops deployable by 2003.

The force, separate from NATO but with plans to share some NATO planning facilities, intelligence and communications, would be used to meet crises that NATO does not want to get involved in.

Cohen, who made his comments during his last appearance at a NATO ministerial meeting as a representative of the Clinton administration, stressed U.S. concerns that the EU should not duplicate NATO's extensive planning capacity.

"Perhaps the choice of language ... helped to capture the attention of the members, but it is quite consistent with everything that I have said," he said on Wednesday.

France, which is not a member of NATO's integrated military command, has been accused of trying to draw European allies away from the U.S. into an autonomous planning structure -- accusations consistently denied by French officials.

French Defence Minister Alain Richard insisted: "We are not disagreeing. We are creating something new."

NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson said that Cohen had been right to warn the Europeans, adding that any rivalry would be "highly dangerous for both organisations".

"If we get a lot of things wrong, then NATO will be irrelevant," he said.

"If we don't get the right capability for the future, then NATO will not have credibility. If we don't get the right EU-NATO linkages, then of course there will be danger for the vitality of NATO as an organisation and the security of its members."

Reuters contributed to this report.



RELATED STORIES:
Defence row looms at EU summit
December 5, 2000
Euro force 'will strengthen NATO'
November 26, 2000
Analysis: Problems facing Europe's rapid reaction force
November 21, 2000
Blair reassures Russia on Euro defence plans
November 21, 2000

RELATED SITES:
NATO
U.S. Department of Defence
UK Ministry of Defence

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