THE president of the European Commission has proclaimed that a common defense policy for Europe, written into the Treaty of Rome, is an ``essential goal'' if the Western alliance is to remain effective. In a speech here that senior political leaders and diplomats say is bound to stir a searching debate on both sides of the Atlantic, Jacques Delors spelled out his belief that without a common defense policy Europe would never be able to face its international responsibilities.
The approach to defense openly adopted by the European Community's top official appeared to put him at odds with the Bush administration. It also prompted privately voiced criticism from British and other European politicians, worried about a weakening of NATO.
There are clear indications, too, that Margaret Thatcher, ousted last December as British prime minister, intends to remain in the forefront of politicians opposed to the Delors's vision of a united Europe and a common defense policy. These, she said last week in the United States, would mean German domination.
Delors urges united response
Mr. Delors, who is deeply committed to closer European political and economic integration, told a London audience of politicians, diplomats, and military strategists on March 7 that the Gulf crisis, in which the EC failed to offer a united response to Iraqi aggression, had provided ``an object lesson'' on the Community's present limitations.
He said: ``We cannot limit the horizons of the new Europe. All around us naked ambition, lust for power, national uprisings, and underdevelopment are combining to create potentially dangerous situations, containing the seeds of destabilization and conflict. The EC must face this challenge.''
The answer, Delors argued, was ``a new Atlantic alliance with redefined aims and new resources'' to supersede NATO.
It should consist of the existing American pillar, plus a second pillar of the 12 EC nations which, Delors said, must make a ``mutual commitment'' to defend each other in the event of attack.
This could be done by writing such a commitment into the Rome Treaty, the EC's founding Constitution.
Previous suggestions by French and Italian government ministers that the EC should aim at eventually having its own defense policy, separate from that of the US, have aroused misgivings among Bush administration officials who see such a move as a threat to NATO.
In an apparent attempt to answer such concerns, Delors told his London audience that it was in the interests of ``all members of the Western alliance'' that ``Europeans should speak with one voice'' on defense. Referring to a US State Department memorandum sent to EC governments last month, he said: ``The US has nothing to gain from a politically impotent and economically subordinate Community.''
British officials are forecasting that Delors will meet resistance. A senior government source said: ``A good case can be made for a united approach to defense - Europe's dismal response to the Gulf crisis proved the point. But, as in so much else, it is the way Delors puts his view that causes problems.''
Britain balks at changes
Where the British government and Delors part company is over the role of the nine-nation Western European Union (WEU) defense grouping, which was moribund throughout the cold war but is still in existence.
Delors would prefer to see the WEU merged with the EC as early as possible. British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd has said that there should be ``a link'' between the WEU and the EC's political consultation mechanisms, and that both should function under the aegis of EC heads of government who would remain in close contact with the US through their membership of NATO.