London (CNSNews.com) - Britain's Labor government has launched a concerted campaign - with some help from the Clinton administration - to sell the idea of a European Union rapid-reaction force, which the government insists will strengthen its alliance with the United States.
The opposition Conservatives fear the initiative will place a strain on historic Anglo-American ties and jeopardize NATO.
Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said Tuesday the newly-unveiled plan to establish a 60,000-strong EU force would make it less likely that a future American president would scale back on the United States' role in Europe.
Speaking during a visit to the Balkans, Hoon said the EU had "sent a clear message to the American people that we value the contribution they make and we do not want to see it diminished."
The Conservative Party has for months been warning against the formation of a "European Army." It sees the initiative as part of an agenda to create a European "superstate" to counter the U.S., whose dominant position in NATO is resented in some European capitals.
Opposition leader William Hague last week gave notice that the party would make the "Euro Army" a major issue in the next general election, expected sometime next year.
He condemned the plan as "an openly political project that will weaken and challenge the NATO alliance.
"This has nothing to do with the defense of our country and everything to do with going with the flow in Europe and building a European superstate," Hague told lawmakers.
His defense spokesman, Iain Duncan Smith, has vowed that a future Conservative government would "put paid to any divisive and political notion of a Euro Army."
Prime Minister Tony Blair firmly denies that the rapid reaction force will constitute an EU army. Britain last week agreed to provide 12,500 troops to the program, whose aim is to carry out "crisis-management operations" lasting at least a year, at 60 days' notice.
Hoon said the force was "quite a small-scale operation," and stressed that Europe's dependence on the U.S. would continue.
At the same time, if the EU did not contribute more to its own defense needs, he continued, "I am absolutely convinced American public opinion will put even more pressure on future American presidents."
Washington lends a hand
Earlier this week a London Sunday newspaper published a joint article by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, putting the case for the European force.
Europe, they wrote, "should assume greater responsibility for common security and defense and act quickly and effectively in fast-breaking crises."
The new defense initiative would be developed in cooperation with NATO, Cook and Albright stressed, and would "not become a European army run from Brussels."
"Nor is this a blueprint for dividing Europe or the Atlantic alliance. NATO remains the foundation of the collective defense of its members.
"An important part of this initiative is the crafting of new arrangements to link the EU and NATO in unprecedented ways, laying the foundation for a true strategic partnership between the two key institutions of the West," they said.
The Cook-Albright article came in the face of considerable opposition to the proposal.
General Sir Peter de la Billiere, who commanded British forces during the Gulf War, said the force would seriously weaken Britain's links with NATO.
Two former Labor cabinet ministers now in the House of Lords, Lords Healey and Owen, agreed.
Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said Blair's agreement to commit 12,500 British troops was a "monumental folly that puts our security at risk in order to satisfy political vanity."
In an earlier speech at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, Thatcher said America's allies should be grateful for its superpower dominance and seek to improve their own military performance.
"Instead, the response is all too often resentment and rivalry," she said, and that lay behind the plan to set up a European force
The move, she warned, would "inevitably lead to a weakening of the age-old ties between Britain and America. And this would be a tragedy for all concerned. Britain has repeatedly proved to be America's closest and most effective ally in times of crisis."
See Earlier Story:
UK Conservatives warn against 'Anti-Americanism' in EU (24 May 2000)