"Ready, Aim ... React"

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Wounded pride can be a great spur to action but not necessarily to the right one. After Europe's widely lamented inability to project its will without American help in Bosnia and later in Kosovo, member states explored ways to give the European Union the means to make its military weight felt. Last week, its members took a first concrete step toward that goal by committing troops to a European Rapid Reaction Force. E.U. defense ministers fleshed out the so-called headline goal their leaders had arrived at a year ago: the ability to deploy a force of 60,000 troops for peacekeeping or crisis-management by 2003 and support it for up to a year. For once, it seemed, the E.U. had not only recognized a shortcoming, but also worked out a remedy.

Such institution building has always been an E.U. forte or weakness, depending on one's attitude. Now Europe's departure into the virgin realm of security policy faces much harder tests. One is practical: Can Europe's defense ministers make good on those commitments and get the money they need to bring their military capability up to snuff? Another is strategic: Will the existence of a parallel structure undermine NATO and loosen the bond between the United States and its European allies? The Americans seem most concerned about the first question; Britain's Conservative opposition was in fits of rage over the second. Denmark opted out of the R.R.F. altogether.

NATO signed off on the idea of a "separable but not separate" European force at its Berlin summit in 1996. E.U. leaders created the coordinating function of High Representative for Security and Foreign Policy and cannily installed it in former NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana. They conjured up the potentially threatening institution of the E.U. Military Staff, but said it will depend heavily on NATO planners at the alliance's Supreme Headquarters for Europe in Mons, Belgium. They appointed General Rainer Schuwirth, a German officer with long NATO experience, to be chief of the R.R.F.'s military staff. And they have been careful to stress that this effort, as Monday's declaration put it, "does not involve the establishment of a European army." Speaking after last week's meeting, French Defense Minister Alain Richard stated the obvious: "It was clear to everyone that there is no prospect of Europe using its collective capability against the will of NATO."

That careful tack has quelled most official American concerns about the R.R.F. "The big moment was last December at the Helsinki [E.U.] summit when they agreed that this new thing will only be used under circumstances in which NATO as a whole is not engaged," says Robert Hunter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO. "That means NATO gets first choice."

In Britain, however, the defense ministers' announcement acted as a bellows on the always live spark of Euro-skepticism among the opposition Conservatives and allied press organs, who argued that the new structure would undermine British sovereignty and NATO alike. The Tories' repository of the true faith, Margaret Thatcher, called the R.R.F. a "monumental folly." Then she plunged the knife in a second time with the withering suggestion that the E.U. "has even less chance of becoming a military power than of creating a sound currency."

Prime Minister Tony Blair had been instrumental in pushing for European cooperation in military affairs, figuring that was a better front for promoting British integration with Europe than the woeful subject of monetary union. The idea of a common European security and defense policy, which the E.U. first set forth in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, began to take form only after Blair committed Britain's considerable military prestige to the project at a meeting with France's President Jacques Chirac in the French port of St. Malo in 1998. "It's a big success of British diplomacy," says Klaus Becher, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "But because the word Europe is in it, it no longer seems to be worth doing." That is not to say Blair has given up. In condemning the Tories' knee-jerk opposition to Europe he said, "It is really high time that we moved British politics beyond the time of Margaret Thatcher."

In Germany which offered up one of the heftiest troop commitments for the R.R.F. the questions were less ideological than financial. The E.U.'s largest country devotes only 1.6% of its gdp to military expenditure, far below the rate of France and the U.K.; it also spends a much smaller proportion of its military budget on equipment. Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping has pushed for reforms and higher spending, but military concerns don't rate particularly high in the Social Democrat-Green coalition government and the military budget is trending down. Paul Breuer, defense-political spokesman of the C.D.U.-C.S.U. parliamentary group, dismisses Scharping's commitments as "no more than an uncovered check for the future."

Frank Umbach, a military expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, argues that most European governments "are still not prepared to commit themselves to pay for more and higher-quality military equipment. And since they are conscious of the insufficiency of their equipment, they know they would incur losses in an armed conflict. Thus, they have a much higher threshold when it comes to taking part in a military operation."

France has been a motor behind the idea of a European defense force, and that has of course led many to wonder whether France, which is not a part of NATO's military structure, was seeking to squeeze the U.S. out of Europe. "Those who oppose it like to talk about this force as 'a French project' designed to extend French influence and power in Europe at the expense of NATO and the U.S.," says Pascal Boniface, director of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris. "That's not the way it is. It's a project to strengthen Europe's ability to assure its own defense and stability, and to pool national defense resources."

"NATO is supporting this because it does not undermine NATO," said an exasperated NATO official. That's not to say the exact relationship between the E.U. and NATO is yet clear. Only in Britain is a fundamental debate currently under way on the wisdom of a separate European defense structure. The issues being aired there, in however dire a fashion, "will no doubt come up again in other countries," a skeptical NATO ambassador says. If NATO's experience in Bosnia and Kosovo is any guide, how the E.U.'s Rapid Reaction Force ought to work will emerge in practice, not in theory.

With reporting by Bruce Crumley / Paris, Barry Hillenbrand / Washington, J.F.O. McAllister / London and Ursula Sautter / Bonn