Auteur: Honor Mahony
EUOBSERVER / NAPLES - EU foreign ministers meeting in Naples to discuss the draft Constitution have made a real breakthrough on the question of the future of European defence.
A proposal submitted early on Saturday morning (29 November) by the Italian EU Presidency is close to being generally accepted by member states.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said that "major steps" have been taken forward "overcoming very different starting positions".
He made reference to Germany, France, Luxembourg and Belgium who met earlier this year to discuss progress in defence.
"Today the founders of that group find their views are reflected in a common line on European defence" said Mr Frattini.
The Italian paper says that structured co-operation on defence among European Union members states will not have minimum limits, will be permanent, and will always be under the political control of the Council of Ministers.
A protocol suggests certain criteria for taking part in an avant garde of member states in defence such as being able, by 2007, to mobilise troops within 5 to 30 days, particularly in response to requests from the United Nations and to be able to maintain the troops for an initial period of 30 days which could be prolonged for up to at least 120 days.
It also says that those member states should co-operate, before the Constitution goes into force [which will be 2006 at the earliest], on goals concerning the level of defence expenditure.
To develop capabilities
"Structured cooperation is not about the running of military operations it is about a group of countries getting together to develop their capabilities", said UK Foreign Minister Jack Straw.
He added: "Decisions on whether to mount any military operation, could only, and will
only in the future be made at 25 in the European council by unanimity".
Dominique de Villepin, French Foreign Minister, was keen to stress how "open and transparent" the system would be. All those who want to and are able to will be able to take part, he said.
The area where there is still real disagreement is on a mutual defence clause. The Italian proposal suggested an article saying that if one member state is attacked, all would have to assist.
However, neutral countries objected to this. Finland, itself neutral, has put forward proposals that it hopes will be taken on board by the rest.
Its proposal say that countries `may' assist with military `or other' means at their disposal.
Mr Straw said the Finnish were working on a proposal that is "designed to square the circle".
De Villepin insisted that the position of neutral or non-aligned countries such as Ireland, Sweden, Austria and Finland would not be compromised by a new EU mutual defence clause.
"We respect the position of countries and I am thinking in particular of the neutral states," he said.
The updated Italian paper on defence comes on the back of an agreement, on Wednesday, between France, Germany and the UK that a separate EU military headquarters should be set up.