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EU leaders duck defence row
NICE, France -- European Union leaders have changed a statement on the role of the controversial new European defence force at Britain's insistence, following criticism from the United States.
Observers say Friday's move appears intended to defuse a fierce row in Britain over accusations by the Conservative opposition and UK media that a planned 60,000-strong EU Rapid Reaction Force would undermine NATO.
The 15 leaders approved a detailed report on European security and defence policy by the EU's French presidency, that had already been endorsed by their foreign ministers.
But EU officials said the leaders omitted several paragraphs from their main statement which summarised the bloc's proposed role in international crisis management, including its future relations with NATO.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the meeting that the draft contained small deviations from agreed EU wording on the defence initiative, a diplomat said.
French President Jacques Chirac, chairing the meeting, said the differences were not substantial but agreed to omit the passages rather than spend time on a line-by-line debate on the wording, another EU official said.
Robin Oakley, CNN.com European Political Editor, says that with a long day and night of negotiating ahead, Chirac wanted to remove all distractions from the main summit business of reforming the EU constitution to equip it to cope with enlargement to as many as 30 countries.
A British spokesman confirmed that Blair had requested the removal of what he called "unnecessarily detailed language."
Pierre Moscovici, the French Minister for Europe, who admitted there had been “lively debate” on the question in Nice, said the French presidency had been able to agree “quite easily” with Blair and had reverted to wording agreed earlier by foreign and defence ministers.
EU force plan sparks rift with U.S.
U.S. Defence Secretary William Cohen warned European allies this week that NATO could become a relic of the past if the EU sets up a European caucus within the alliance and establishes rival structures for defence planning.
Chirac fuelled the controversy on Thursday when he told a news conference at the Nice summit that the EU's military planning should be independent of NATO's military headquarters.
"This European defence must naturally be co-ordinated with the alliance, but as far as its planning and implementation is concerned, it must be independent of SHAPE. Coordinated but independent," he said, referring to NATO's Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers in Europe.
Britain's Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Charles Guthrie, said: "Judging from what President Chirac said, there is certainly a difference of opinion."
But the EU insists its defence initiative is fully compatible with NATO and is intended to carry out lower-tier peacekeeping and humanitarian missions when the United States chooses not to get involved.
However, unresolved issues remain over the degree of co-ordination or autonomy between the EU force and NATO, and the role granted to six European NATO members who are not in the EU.
In a separate development at the summit on Friday, EU leaders promised to be ready to admit new members from the end of 2002 and said they hoped the first would join in time for 2004 European Parliament elections.
The leaders said they wanted to inject "fresh impetus" into the 15-nation EU's ambitious plan to admit 12 mainly former communist countries.
The leaders agreed a "road map" laying out what the EU needs to do in negotiations with candidate countries over 2001 and 2002, if it is to be ready on time. It urged candidates to "continue and speed up the necessary reforms" needed for entry.
However, talks between the 15 EU leaders have now been suspended until Saturday morning, and in the meantime there will be urgent bilateral meetings between the French summit presidency and key players in the hope that individual deals deals can be hammered out overnight.
President Chirac has promised a new draft agreement for all the national leaders to consider in the morning.
Six countries -- Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia and Cyprus -- which entered talks back in March 1998, had once hoped the EU leaders would set a concrete target date in Nice for ending their tough EU negotiations.
They have all set themselves January 1, 2003, as an entry target date, but doubts have been expressed about whether the expansion will take place before 2005.
The leaders said an EU summit in Gothenburg next June under Sweden's EU chairmanship would decide on the next steps in the expansion plan.
"In Gothenburg, in June 2001, the European Council will assess progress in implementing that new strategy in order to give the necessary guidance for the successful completion of the process," the leaders' conclusions said.
Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Malta, Bulgaria and Romania have also been in talks since February of this year.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Analysis: Problems facing Europe's rapid reaction force
European Council - Nice Summit
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