Kurt Beck, leader of the Social Democrats, called Monday for a European army with a single command, the first time a German political party has proposed such a structure. If adopted, it could lead to the European Union pursuing a security and defense policy independent of NATO.
The proposal was immediately rejected by President Lech Kaczynski of Poland, who said in Vilnius on Monday that the EU should build an army of 100,000 that would remain linked to NATO. Alliance officials said NATO supported the EU playing a greater security and defense role.
In his first major foreign policy speech since becoming leader of a party that is joined in coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative bloc, Beck said Europe should become a "global peace power" with its own military command and goals.
That goal has eluded European governments in the past and there is no agreement on it now. Still, security analysts said the proposal from Beck, who became party leader last May, reflected unease in Germany and elsewhere in Europe about NATO's identification with U.S. leadership.
Beck told delegates during a special meeting in Berlin that such defense ambitions for the EU would not rupture the trans-Atlantic relationship because, without the United States, "we cannot solve global problems."
However, instead of "following" or "adhering" to the United States, he said, the Europeans should establish a partnership "based on quality. This is the particular challenge for Europe."
In the long term, Beck said, "Europe's security and defense policy would have a single military command."
Pal Dunay, security expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said Monday: "The problem is not with NATO as such but how the alliance has become almost a tool box for the U.S."
An EU move toward establishing its own force, Dunay said, could lead to more efficient defense spending at a juncture when countries are reluctant to increase military budgets while being asked by the United Nations in particular to join peacekeeping missions.
"At the moment, you have separate national planning headquarters, separate logistic centers and separate military headquarters. It would mean getting rid of some of these," Dunay said. "Giving up those would hurt some countries. I could imagine that the U.K. would hate the idea of an integrated European defense force and single command."
The EU is already involved in peacekeeping missions independent of NATO. Next January, it will for the first time have its own military planning cell in Brussels, which can plan missions involving up to 2,000 soldiers.
"Moving toward creating a European armed forces is a work in progress," said Giovanni Grevi, defense analyst at the EU's Institute for Security Studies in Paris. "It should be a serious, constructive and incremental approach. What is at issue is the political control and accountability of those armed forces and the command structure."
Germany is preparing to take over the rotating presidency of the EU in January. Its Defense Ministry is trying to define how and when the German Army should intervene in trouble spots during peacekeeping or crisis prevention missions.
By airing the idea of an integrated European force, Beck has revived a debate that only three years ago was seen as a threat to the basis of the trans-Atlantic relationship.
At that time President Jacques Chirac of France; Gerhard Schröder, who was chancellor of Germany, and the leaders of Belgium and Luxembourg, all of whom opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, proposed an EU military headquarters. NATO said that would be a direct threat to the alliance and the trans-Atlantic relationship.
Since then, the idea had been placed on the back burner because Britain, Poland and some other countries opposed a single European command, arguing it would be at the expense of NATO.