Seeking to mend fences with the United States, Germany and France on Tuesday pledged to shoulder more of Europe’s defense burdens. But the two strong opponents of war in Iraq quickly ran into criticism that their efforts may undermine NATO.
Gathering in Brussels for a four-nation summit maligned by critics as the “coalition of the unwilling,” French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the leaders of Belgium and Luxembourg used the meeting to try to make up to miffed U.S. allies for their antiwar stance.
The four leaders made vague pledges to invest more to modernize their armies and bolster NATO. They also endorsed other proposals, such as creating a European arms procurement agency, that are to be discussed with other European Union members at a June summit in Greece.
“The time has come to take new steps in the construction of a Europe of security and defense based on strengthened European military capabilities which will also give a new vitality to the Atlantic alliance,” the four said in a joint statement. The other 11 EU nations either weren’t invited or declined to attend.
Washington has long complained that its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies don’t spend enough on defense.
According to NATO data, the U.S. spent 3% of its gross domestic product on defense last year, compared with 2.5% by France, 1.5% by Germany, 1.3% by Belgium and 0.9% by Luxembourg. The $350-billion U.S. defense outlay was more than double the total spent by the other 18 NATO nations.
But U.S. reaction to the proposals laid out in Brussels, including a pitch to create a European military headquarters apart from NATO’s, was swift and dismissive.
“What we need is not more headquarters. What we need is more capability and fleshing out the structure and the forces that are there with the equipment that they need,” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in Washington.
The four summit participants, however, insisted that their proposals for EU defense structures would augment, rather than rival, NATO’s capabilities. “It’s not that we have too much America in NATO, but that we have too little Europe in it,” Schroeder said.
The Brussels meeting was scheduled last month during the most fractious phase of the international debate over Iraq.
Called by Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who faces a tough reelection bid in three weeks, the meeting was seen by supporters of the war in Iraq as political posturing that could deepen the rift between those European nations that backed the U.S. stance on Iraq and those that didn’t.
France has suffered a loss of international face and trade income from its opposition to U.S. war plans, and Schroeder’s foes have blamed him for damaging the relations built over decades with Washington and London.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair had sent a veiled warning to the four that they should be careful to avoid any actions aimed at weakening Washington’s lead role in NATO.
“We need one polar power which encompasses a strategic partnership between Europe and America,” Blair told London’s Financial Times in an interview before the summit. At a news conference Monday, Blair added that neither Britain nor other EU nations would accept “anything that either undermines NATO or conflicts with the basic principles of European defense that we have set out.”
On Tuesday, Blair met in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to talk about postwar reconstruction in Iraq. While Blair pressed for Russia to support the lifting of U.N. sanctions on Iraq as quickly as possible, Putin said they should not end until it is clear that any weapons of mass destruction have been eliminated.
“Where is Saddam? Where are these arsenals, if they were really there? What is happening to them?” Putin asked at a news conference with Blair after their meeting. “Maybe Saddam is sitting somewhere in a secret bunker, planning in the near future to blow all this stuff up.”
U.N. weapons inspectors must quickly return to Iraq because “it is only they who can make an expert assessment,” Putin said.
Times staff writer David Holley in Moscow contributed to this report.