EVEN the European Union's most convinced supporters will find it difficult to explain away the shambles which developed on Friday afternoon at the EU Summit in Belgium. At isue was the EU's role in the international stabilisation force which will help to keep Afghanistan on an even keel when the new multi-tribal government takes over in Kabul one week from today. While meetings were taking place in London to determine the membership and mission of this international force under UN auspices, the foreign minister of Belgium, Louis Michel, surprised the Summit meeting by announcing that the fifteen member states of the EU would be providing the force and that this decision represented a turning point in the history of the European Union. No one was more surprised to hear this than the British representatives at the Summit since Britain was widely expected to be lead nation in the force being discussed in London. A Downing Street statement was rushed out, saying: It's a United Nations mandated international force which will have EU members. It will also have a range of other countries. Quite clearly it is not an EU force. Asked what M. Michel had been talking about, Downing Sreet used a new diplomatic formula: He must have stumbled over his words. Later in the day M. Michel used a very old diplomatic formula; he said there had been a misunderstanding!
There will be an announcement about the UN force very soon; Britain is thought likely to commit three or four thousand troops for a maximum of three months. Such time limits are easy to set but will be difficult to stick to in the turbulent circumstances of Afghanistan.