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There have always been two benchmarks of genuine “European” identity: a single currency that would make the claim to economic union a reality, and a military force that could backstop the group’s foreign-policy pretensions. The currency debuted on Jan. 1, 1999, and has had a difficult time ever since. The military force moved a step closer to reality this week when the 15 European Union members pledged the troops and hardware that will make up its Rapid Reaction Force. Now the EU must demonstrate the political will needed to make the RRF a reality.

Although Europeans had discussed a shared military since the early days of the Cold War, they were content to leave the real work to NATO. But the EU’s growing political influence forced European leaders to think more seriously about an independent force. Political pronouncements without the means to back them up undermined the group’s credibility.

At the EU summit that was held in Helsinki last December, they decided to form a force of 60,000 troops that would be ready by 2003 to enter hot spots within 60 days and remain in place for at least a year. In practical terms, that requires a total force three times that number. At a meeting earlier this week in Brussels, European officials pledged 100,000 troops, 400 combat aircraft and 100 ships.

From this “catalog,” the EU must assemble a real force capable of fulfilling its mission. The focus now turns to logistics, preparation and training. The remaining pieces of the puzzle that are needed to make the RRF viable include command, strategic transport and intelligence.

Putting the RRF together has not been easy. Fifteen European countries that are either in NATO but not in the EU or are candidates to join the Union have pledged troops for the RRF. Even though the EU decided last year to set up a consultative mechanism to ensure that those governments have input to the RRF decision-making process, coordination will be difficult.

The chief concern has been a possible conflict of mission with NATO, and, by extension, the United States. To dispel those fears, the communique released after the Brussels meeting said that the RRF avoided duplication with NATO and “does not involve the establishment of a European Army.” And indeed, the RRF does not list territorial defense — NATO’s job — among its missions. Instead, the force is for humanitarian, peacekeeping and peacemaking roles when NATO declines to participate. Officials have gone to great lengths to assure the public that the RRF would operate almost entirely within established NATO structures.

The EU plans to complete a broad framework for NATO cooperation by its summit next month. That is unlikely. In the best of circumstances, the details are too important and the issue too touchy to expect any easy agreement. The political turmoil in the U.S. only adds to the impulse to go slow.

As designed, the RRF makes sense. Europe needs a military arm to back up its political clout. The EU’s failure to do more than wring its hands as Yugoslavia broke up at the beginning of the 1990s raised questions about the Union’s international credibility. It may not be wholly accurate, but the general perception is that it took U.S. intervention to put out a fire burning on the EU’s own doorstep. The RRF could help prevent that from happening again.

Ideally, however, the RRF will encourage the EU to move more quickly to ensure that events do not spiral out of control. In other words, the possibility of being forced to send in troops would oblige Europe to fashion preventive political and economic responses.

That is the logic behind the Balkan summit that convenes Friday in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. EU and Balkan leaders will try to launch an era of cooperation between the new countries of the region and with the EU. The EU is expected to offer some $4 billion in financial aid to support economic and political reform. Drawing on their own experience, EU leaders aim to encourage deeper ties among the countries and nudge them toward a free-trade zone. If Europe’s own history is any precedent, that should help ease tensions in the region. Of course, Yugoslavia’s recent history is proof that integration is no defense against nationalist passions and ethnic insanity.

Should those twin forces flare again, the RRF will be forced to intervene. Then the real issue emerges: Does the EU have the political will to take action? A catalog of forces is one thing, a genuine rapid-reaction force ready to move is another. The courage to use such a force and, if necessary, pay the price for that decision, is yet another. The EU’s historic decisions this week do not yet answer the doubts that hang over the RRF.

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