February 22, 2008 / 1:47 PM / 12 years ago

U.S. urges France to boost defense as EU president

PARIS (Reuters) - The United States urged France on Friday to use its forthcoming presidency of the European Union to boost Europe’s defenses by increased military spending and investment in hardware and troop levels.

An appeal from a U.S. envoy indicated Washington’s high expectations of President Nicolas Sarkozy who supports a robust EU defense capability and whose country assumes the EU rotating presidency in July.

Sarkozy has signaled France might be ready to return to NATO’s military structures after 41 years’ absence and has said he favors a closer relationship on defense between the EU and the U.S.-led military alliance.

The two organizations share many European members.

“We agree with France. Europe needs, the U.S. needs, NATO needs ... a stronger, more capable European defense capacity,” U.S. ambassador to NATO Victoria Nuland told a news conference.

Nuland cited military spending figures to show the transatlantic commitment to providing “hard power” — military jargon for combat capability as opposed to diplomatic “soft power” missions — had objectively gone down.

Turning to France’s forthcoming turn as head of the 27-member EU, she said:

“We hope France will lead an effort to strengthen European defense spending, and to upgrade European military capability with badly needed investment in helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, special forces, inter-operable communications, and counterinsurgency-trained soldiers, civilians.”

She singled out for praise France’s contribution to the NATO peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan.

Seizing on a previous comment by Sarkozy, she called for “a stronger, more seamless relationship” between the EU and NATO.

French defense Minister Herve Morin raised speculation of a possible full return to the NATO fold last September when he said it was time to “clarify” France’s role in the alliance.

President Charles de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO’s integrated military structure in 1966, a decision that forced the alliance to move its headquarters from Paris to Brussels.

Though partly reintegrated into the alliance’s military side under President Jacques Chirac, France remains outside important NATO forums on nuclear and defense planning.

Editing by James Mackenzie and Mary Gabriel

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