London (CNSNews.com) - A group of senior British and French military officers Tuesday attacked plans for a European Union rapid reaction force, saying they would weaken both nations' armed forces while creating a "fictitious paper army."
In an open letter published in a London daily, the 11 generals and admirals attributed the idea of an EU armed force to European federalist leaders "playing at armchair generals" and suggested it be thrown into "the dustbin of history."
Their opposition to the "Euro Army" proposal is based on the officers' assessment that it will dilute the ability of the EU's two most powerful armies to protect their vital national interests.
EU member-states have agreed to make available 100,000 troops, 400 combat aircraft and 100 ships for a pool to support a 60,000-member force to carry out peacekeeping and other operations by 2003.
Britain and France are spearheading the plan, and also contributing the largest amount of resources.
Opposition politicians in Britain say the initiative could undercut NATO and jeopardize trans-Atlantic ties - some even see an anti-American French agenda behind the move. Prime Minister Tony Blair denies this is the case, and sought to reassure President Bush when the two met at Camp David last February.
Blair told the U.S. leader there would be a joint EU-NATO command, and that military planning would take place within NATO. On that basis, Bush gave the plan his support.
But Blair returned home to accusations by the Conservative Party that he had given Bush assurances Britain was in no position to honor.
The following month the French army chief, General Jean-Pierre Kelche, confirmed that the force would have to have its own planning structures, and be independent of NATO.
The 11 officers who signed Tuesday's letter said they recognized that Britain and France had different opinions on the role and future of NATO. "A common Euro army is incompatible with both of our approaches to this issue."
"While close co-operation should quite rightly take place, common cause does not mean that we should dilute our forces in a common army, navy or air force," they argued.
The officers also took their governments to task for defense cuts, and for overstretching their armed forces by committing cut-back forces to increased global peacekeeping operations, "with disastrous effects on retention and morale."
Conservative defense spokesman Iain Duncan Smith - tipped as a candidate in the party's leadership contest following William Hague's resignation - said Tuesday the letter from the admirals and generals proved that there was "growing anger" over the government's attitude toward the armed forces.
Accusing the government of placing the trans-Atlantic alliance at risk, Duncan Smith urged it to "listen to those who know" and abandon the Euro Army plans.
In an interview with European journalists shortly before embarking on his first European visit this week, President Bush reiterated Washington's willingness to support the idea "so long as it doesn't undermine NATO."
Recalling his discussions on the matter with Blair at Camp David, Bush said it was essential that the EU proposal did not "hamstring NATO's capacity to provide the security necessary."
The military committees of NATO and the EU held their first meeting Tuesday, at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
A spokesman said afterwards the two bodies had agreed to strengthen cooperation between them in managing military crises.
They also agreed that arrangements for their relationship would reflect the fact they were dealing with each other on an "equal footing," and that either side would respect the other's autonomy of decision-making.
UK Conservatives Vow To Abandon Euro Army If Elected (May 25, 2001)
'Blair Misled Bush Over European Army' (Feb 26, 2001)