SLOVAK foreign minister Eduard Kukan (second from right) with European counterparts.
On April 29 four EU member countries - France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg - agreed in Brussels that the EU should move ahead with defence integration and create a European defence union.
"The EU should take the necessary steps to establish a multinational, deployable force headquarters for joint operations not later than 2004," read a statement released after the meeting, attended by French president Jacques Chirac, German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, and Luxembourg's premier Jean-Claude Juncker.
Currently, decisions about defence are left up to the union's member states, which should include Slovakia from May 2004. The new proposal suggests that a command centre in charge of the multinational European force be based at Tervuren outside Brussels.
Initiators of the idea deny that an exclusive, Europe-wide defence organisation would work in opposition to NATO.
"With a strong European defence we will contribute to a strong NATO," Chirac said after the meeting. "This is in the best interests of Europe. It's also clearly in the interests of the Atlantic alliance."
The announcement of the proposals came a few days before a two-day meeting of foreign ministers of EU member states and candidate countries, including Slovakia, in the Greek islands. On May 3 they agreed to draft the union's first common European security strategy, intended to avoid future disputes over foreign policy issues. The draft will be presented at another summit in June.
"We arrived at a very important decision: that we should set up a European security concept. If we want to have a substantive discussion with the United States, we first and foremost have to agree what our own priorities are," said Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou.
Some Slovak politicians say they understand the logic behind the plan to set up an EDU and are in favour of it.
"I don't think it's a bad idea. I think it is very appropriate and it could play a very positive role," said Robert Kaliňák, member of the opposition party Smer and head of the parliamentary defence committee.
"[The conflict in] Iraq clearly showed the difference between how well prepared Europe is and how well prepared the US is. The uneven position of the EU and the US caused a lot of the tension," Kaliňák said.
All four countries proposing the establishment of an EDU were strong opponents to the US-led military campaign in the Middle East.
"A stronger Europe would mean a stronger partnership with the US. I'm saying this based on my own experience - no agreement between unequal partners can function effectively. And we need the alliance to be effective," said Kaliňák.
However, the US does not seem to think that such a move would improve mutual relations.
"Four of the nations of the union have come together and created some sort of a plan to develop some sort of a headquarters," US secretary of state Colin Powell told the Senate foreign relations committee.
"What we need is not more headquarters," Powell said. "What we need is more capability and fleshing out of the structure and the forces that are already there."
The official Slovak position on this issue is in line with the US stance.
"[Slovakia] supports a defence pillar within the EU, which will take on more responsibility for security in Europe, but it will have to be a part of the transatlantic defence system," said Defence Minister Ivan Šimko on May 1.
"In my opinion, this position is a result of the fact that our government has closer ties with the US than with the EU, which creates a certain dependency," said Kaliňák.
Government officials point out that the EU itself is not united over the issue.
"[The proposal to establish the EDU] is not a decision made by the European Union," said Šimko, stressing it was only an initiative of four member states.
He was speaking at a Bratislava press conference with his Danish counterpart Svend Aage Jensby, who agreed that "it is meaningless to duplicate things that already exist at a transatlantic level".
Countries that have spoken out against the proposal include EU members such as Britain, Spain, and Italy. Insiders say similar proposals are likely to add to disputes between European countries and make the continent weaker, not stronger.
"There is a great risk that initiatives regarding defence policy could further divide Europe, instead of bringing it together," said Italian deputy prime minister Gianfranco Fini during a visit to Bratislava on May 5.
Discussions on the future of EU defence are not new. "The European Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) was created in the early 1990s as a response to the new challenges facing member states," said Onno Simons, counsellor with the EC Delegation to Slovakia.
"The European Security and Defence Policy is an integral part of CFSP. Since 1999, every effort has been made to develop the union's capacity for autonomous action," Simons said.
On March 31 the EU officially took over command of the international peacekeeping mission in Macedonia, Operation Concordia, previously led by NATO. It is the first military operation of an EU-sponsored joint rapid reaction force.
On April 10 the Slovak parliament agreed to deploy one soldier in the operation.
"Our participation in the operation reflects the strategic interests of the state," said Šimko.
12. May 2003 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila