Turkey Refuses to Budge Over New EU Military Force

BRUSSELS (Reuters)–NATO member Turkey refused on Tuesday to lift its veto on a deal which would allow the European Union to draw on alliance assets for its planned military rapid reaction force.

Turkey–which is a candidate for EU membership but has yet to begin the long and complex accession negotiations–insists on playing a full role in the decision-making process of the new force–but the Union says this is unacceptable. “For now–I see no evolution in the Turkish position,” said French Defense Minister Alain Richard after talks between defense ministers of the 15 EU states–13 candidate countries including Turkey and the two NATO members completely outside the EU–Iceland and Norway.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ismail Cem–also in Brussels for talks between foreign ministers of the EU and the candidate countries–said he hoped his country could agree to a compromise before a planned NATO summit in Hungary on May 29-30. "We hope to have an agreement before Budapest–but if this is not the case it is not the end of the world,” Cem said.

Turkey is worried that if it has no right of veto the planned EU force might conceivably carry out operations in the future in or near Cyprus or the Aegean Sea–where it has long-running disputes with EU member Greece.

Ankara also hopes to use the issue of the rapid reaction force as a bargaining chip to help boost its chances of opening EU accession talks–diplomats say.

The planned force is meant to complement NATO by conducting humanitarian and crisis management operations when the U.S.-led alliance does not want to get involved.

The EU has set itself a headline goal of 60,000 personnel for the force–which is meant to be fully operational by 2003.

Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh–whose country holds the rotating EU presidency–said it was for NATO to settle the row. “I am sure Turkey wants to contribute to this force in a positive way…The EU has offered generous terms to Turkey and the other non-EU states,” she added.

The EU has made clear that the non-EU NATO states – which also include Poland–Hungary and the Czech Republic – would be consulted closely on future operations–to which they would be invited to contribute troops and equipment.

Of the non-EU states–only Turkey has rejected the plan to allow the EU force automatic access to alliance assets.

Sweden’s Defense Minister Bjorn von Sydow told a news conference that the first joint NATO-EU exercises were not due to take place until 2003. “So we still have some time to work out a solution,” he said.

Apart from the row with Turkey–Sydow said the EU and NATO had made good progress towards setting up the new force. Two of the three bodies intended to oversee the EU’s new security and defense policy were already operational and a third entity–the military staff–was now being set up. It would move to a new headquarters in Brussels by the end of this month.

Sydow said the EU defense ministers had agreed a program of exercises for the period 2002-2006 involving military planners. The EU has yet to decide on specific operations.

France’s Richard echoed Sydow’s commen’s. “We are moving progressively from debates about principle and procedure to speaking about concrete commitmen’s,” he said.

EU diplomats said NATO and the EU were already working together closely on the ground in troublespots like the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia and southern Serbia.

“The theory is actually lagging the practice–not the other way around,” said one. “Cooperation is not incompatible with the autonomy of each organization.”

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