Friday, March 03, 2006

The European Dating Agency

Yesterday, EU officials proposed that member states should share the costs of developing new protective technology for soldiers and vehicles on joint missions in hotspots such as Congo.

That was the substance of a piece in the International Herald Tribune, which went on to report that under the plan, countries would agree to relinquish some control over the ways in which funds are spent. The immediate target is the development of such technologies as lightweight body armour and vehicle defensive systems.

The project, says the IHT citing unnamed officials, would be voluntary but could eventually lead to more ambitious initiatives and defence ministers are now to discuss the idea in Innsbruck, Austria, next week. EU officials are hoping they will agree by mid-May to let the fledgling European Defence Agency (EDA) oversee the project.

Even the IHT admits that this could be optimistic, suggesting that the project could be "a tough sell" at a time when the EU is concerned by an apparent drift toward protectionism.

For once, it seems, the Conservatives are on the ball, with Liam Fox, shadow defence secretary, speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning, his view amplified on the Conservative website.

According to this source, Fox warned that the EU plans, involving the creation of a central budget, and extending co-operation among member states on defence technology and research, would undermine NATO as well as UK relations with the United States.

"It will not just be technology. They will be looking for common European procurement, and once we get the Commission involved in that, then we are well on our way to having an integrated European defence policy," he said, adding – of the modest plan proposed,: "This will be only the start. Once this budget is started, then they will be looking for more money."

Fox goes on to say that the policy represented the thin end of the wedge, claiming that co-operation on technology would soon lead to an integrated defence policy. He declared: "That diminishes Britain's relationship with the United States, it undermines NATO, and it is typical of a Government that talks very transatlantic when it is in Washington, but ultimately buys European when it has to deal with its French allies."

However, Reuters, picking up on the Today programme, reports that “Britain opposes common EU defence fund”, retailing a comment by a British “senior official” that the UK instead wants EU states instead to focus on raising their meagre spending in the area

It cites Lord Drayson saying that he would resist the creation of a new centralised budget and pursue its policy of picking individual projects for cross-border co-operation.

The programme itself had Drayson saying that the UK preferred member states to keep control of the own defence budgets, and wanted the EDA to look after "low level" projects, and that it should "not run before it had learnt to walk".

That comment did not seem to rule out a greater role for the EDA in the future but, for the moment, Drayson is dismissive. The EDA, he say, is a European Dating Agency, identifying common needs and putting member states in touch with each other. Dating may be all Drayson has in mind, but what follows could be a shotgun marriage.

Graphic by Anoneumouse.

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