Hoon to hold talks with Rumsfeld

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon is facing a potentially difficult meeting with his US counterpart Donald Rumsfeld after the UK gave its backing to new proposals on the future of European defence.

Arriving in Brussels for a two-day meeting of Nato defence ministers, Mr Rumsfeld voiced concerns that the European Union initiative should not undermine the Atlantic alliance.

"Anything that puts at risk that institution (Nato) ... you'd have to have a very good reason for wanting to do it. And I think there's no reason for something else to be competitive with Nato."

The US Defence Secretary was giving his first reaction to a plan to enhance the EU's defence capabilities drawn up by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and his French and German counterparts at a weekend meeting in Naples, Italy.

While the plan envisages inserting a mutual defence clause into the EU's proposed Constitution, it would recognise Nato as the foundation of collective defence for its members, which include 11 EU states.

The Constitution will also state that the primary objective of closer defence co-operation among EU states is the development of better military capabilities, rather than the duplication of Nato structures.

The US's foremost concern about the EU initiative in its early stages was a Franco-German-Belgian proposal to set up an independent military planning headquarters for exclusive EU peacekeeping and crisis management missions.

That has now been diluted to a small cell of planning officers at the existing EU military staff in Brussels, which would only be called upon if Nato chose not to be involved in an operation.

Mr Rumsfeld may nevertheless need reassuring that that unit does not, over time, grow into something which could rival the Nato command structure.

Mr Straw insisted over the weekend that the new arrangements will not be allowed to impinge on Nato's pre-eminence as Europe's security guarantor.

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