Bildt plays down fears over US missile defence

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has played down fears that building part of a US missile shield in Europe could heighten tensions with Russia, which fiercely opposes the system.

Asked on Thursday if he was concerned that the shield might ultimately pit Moscow against the European Union, Bildt said: “Not at all at the moment. I think it’s a much too early stage, it’s just initial discussions that are going on.”

The United States wants to build a bank of 10 interceptors in Poland from next year to shoot down missiles that might be fired from “rogue states” like Iran or North Korea.

The interceptors would home in on information provided by a tracking station to be set up in the Czech Republic, as well as a forward operating radar at an undisclosed location in the Caucasus.

Washington maintains that the new part of the shield – to be fully operational by 2013 – would protect not only eastern parts of the United States, but also many of its European allies.

But Bildt, speaking as he arrived for a summit of EU leaders in Brussels, said: “This is primarily a system designed for the protection of the United States and it’s geared very much by the overall situation in the Middle East.”

“I hope that we would, in the years to come, have sufficient progress on the peace process in the Middle East to make these discussions somewhat more academic,” he told reporters.

The missile shield shot onto the EU’s agenda on Monday when Austria requested that EU foreign ministers hear from their Polish and Czech counterparts about developments.

Parts of the system are set up in Britain and Greenland.

Despite the fact that the EU has no direct powers over defence matters, the bloc’s German presidency left open the possibility that heads of state and government could debate the issue over dinner late Thursday.