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Wrangle over EU rapid reaction force

EU leaders Verhofstadt of Belgium and Berlusconi of Italy are eyeing a busy two days
EU leaders Verhofstadt of Belgium and Berlusconi of Italy are eyeing a busy two days  


BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Leaders of the 15 European Union states are bidding to overcome a stumbling block over plans to declare a new rapid reaction force operational.

The discussions are separate from the role EU countries may play in a U.N. "stabilisation" peacekeeping force in Afghanistan.

Belgium, the current EU president, is hopeful that the announcement on the rapid reaction force can be made at a summit which began on Friday, but Greece is blocking a deal between the European Union and its arch-foe Turkey.

Athens is seeking assurances to match those won by its fellow NATO member under the deal, which last week agreed to grant the embryonic EU crisis management force automatic access to the Western defence alliance's planning resources.

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An announcement that the force is operational would put into place the first elements of a body of up to 60,000 troops, which should be deployable by 2003 with air and naval support within 60 days and able to remain deployed for 12 months in and around Europe.

Turkey -- which is not in the EU -- had threatened to block access to NATO planning until it was assured the force would not be used in disputes with Greece or over divided Cyprus.

A lack of NATO support could mean a increase in the cost to the 15-nation union of missions once its force becomes fully operational in humanitarian and rescue tasks, peacekeeping and peacemaking.

In a further complication, the Netherlands said it saw no point in declaring the force operational during the Laeken summit in Brussels unless there was an agreement with Greece.

"We had a problem with Turkey and we found a solution to that. Now it is a challenge to have that agreement backed within the EU," Dutch State Secretary Dick Benschop told Reuters.

"But without the agreement with NATO it is very difficult. We should not promise more than we can offer."

Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou told reporters his government was still consulting the other 14 EU states over the wording of an agreement that would satisfy Athens' concerns.

"We're still negotiating. We have not yet resolved the issue of our relationship with the six non-EU (NATO) allies," he said.

Greece is concerned that the EU force could become too reliant on the backing of non-EU members such as Turkey for launching future operations.

Turkey has the second largest standing army in NATO and some 30,000 troops stationed on the divided island of Cyprus, where it supports ethnic Turkish ambitions for statehood over the objections of the internationally recognised Greek Cypriot-led government.

The EU summit is due to end on Saturday afternoon.

With tight security surrounding the EU leaders, Belgian police used water cannon and tear gas on Friday to disperse masked anarchists wielding cobblestones and metal staves during an anti- globalisation demonstration outside the summit.

Witnesses said the rioters smashed the windows of banks in Place Bockstael, a square about three kilometres (two miles) from the Laeken royal palace in the suburbs of Brussuels where the summit is being held.

A broad range of issues from international terrorism to the European single currency are on the agenda at the summit. It will also consider the Mideast crisis and efforts to rebuild war-torn Afghanistan.

In an early move, the EU leaders announced unprecedented plans for all 15 EU nations to take part in the United Nations' planned peacekeeping force in Afghanistan.

Proposals to welcome 12 new members into the 15-state bloc within the next decade are also on the agenda at the summit, as is progress in the international coalition against terrorism.

With discussions of the situation in the Balkans and Africa also expected, officials expect the summit to go into overtime.

Summit chairman Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian prime minister, told European colleagues in his invitation letter that the agenda "is a particularly heavy one and should see us take important decisions for the immediate and longer-term future of our union."

A pressing issue is the commitment made to the United States to adopt a wide-ranging package of measures to help hunt down terrorist cells operating in Europe.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had objected to the wide range of crimes covered by a proposed EU-wide arrest warrant, though he backed down this week following massive pressure from his partners to accept the new warrant, which is expected to come into effect by 2004.

The proposal will cover 32 crimes ranging from terrorism to money laundering to child pornography.

Also part of the anti-terrorist package are measures to bolster security at airports and borders as well as drawing up a common definition of what constitutes a terrorist act.

EU leaders are also due to draft a list of European terrorist groups, which some officials told The Associated Press was so sensitive that it was unlikely be resolved at the summit.

On Saturday, the summit will discuss how to launch new reform talks and issue a formal declaration laying out how an expanded Union of 27 members will work. They will also meet with leaders of the 12 candidate countries negotiating to join the EU by 2004.

EU leaders also plan to review final preparations for the historic introduction of euro notes and coins on January 1.



 
 
 
 


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