Plans by the Bush Administration to station missile interceptors and radar stations in Poland and the Czech Republic as part of its "missile shield" were discussed at a public hearing in Parliament on 28 June. Both countries are EU and NATO members and any decision by them will have an impact on Europe's defence. Whether such a shield is needed, who will ultimately control it as well as which countries it would cover were all discussed. MEPs were joined by defence experts for the hearing.
Washington sees the interceptors as a key part of its defence against intercontinental missiles fired by states such as Iran and North Korea. Tehran's nuclear programme and its development of intercontinental missiles is particularly seen as a new emerging threat to America by the current Administration.
The US plans have been fiercely resisted by Russia - which sees itself as the target - with both sides at times trading rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War. At a meeting on 2 July President Putin called for Russia and other European allies to be included in the shield. He has previously offered Azerbaijan as a base for the interceptors and radar stations. These proposals have been given a cautious welcome by President Bush.
Are Europe and the US threatened by missiles?
At the hearing - held by Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs and Subcommittee on Security and Defence - there were sharp differences about the desirability of the missile interceptors, and the actions of Poland and the Czech Republic in agreeing to the US request.
Two experts in missile defence - Dr. Patricia Sanders from the US Missile defence agency and Peter Flory - Assistant Secretary General for defence investment at NATO, both agreed on the need for the system. Dr. Sanders spoke of a "real and growing threat" and said that it would be prudent to have "a defensive option instead of pre-emptive strikes and retaliations".
Two MEPs - Italian Socialist Achille Occheto and Tobias Pflüger, a German member of the European United Left (GUE/NGL) strongly disagreed. They expressed doubts on the probability of the threat.
Call for Poland and Czech Republic not to go alone
At the heart of the hearing were calls for EU members to liaise with one another and cooperate on European security and defence policy and within NATO. There was consensus from MEPs and defence experts that if EU members go alone and conclude agreements with the US this was undesirable and could lead to wider escalation.
Jacek Saryusz-Wolski - the Polish European People's Party and European Democrats (EPP-ED) MEP who chairs the foreign affairs committee said we must "avoid new dividing lines between member states". He called for closer dialogue with Russia.
Karl Von Wogau (EPP-ED) - Chair of the security and defence subcommittee deplored the "deficit of information" on the issue and said there should be more cooperation with the Union, and with the US and within existing NATO structures. He ended by saying that "to have 2 zones of different security in Europe is unacceptable".
The threat of a new arms race and the "weaponisation" of space were two issues raised by Professor Dave Webb of Leeds University in the UK. He warned of "creating a costly system aimed at threat that might even not exist".
Both Poland and the Czech Republic have given there approval for the stationing of interceptors and radar facilities on their territory although polls have a majority in both countries against the scheme (in Poland 57%, Czech Republic 62%).
Many speakers - including Belgian Liberal MEP Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck - agreed that the missile shield should form part of a wider system of defence that involves diplomacy, multilateral arms control and disarmament.
Will the missile shield actually work and who will control it?
"Is the anti-missile shield an American system in Europe or rather a NATO/US system for Europe?" That was the question posed by Girts Valdis Kristovskis a Latvian MEP with the Union of Europe for the Nations (UEN) Group. He went on to say that "if it is a system for Europe, its opinion has to be listened to".
Mr Saryusz-Wolski also raised the question whether "this system secure Europe as a whole?" He also spoke about the issue of debris from intercepted missiles and the danger this could potentially pose to the general public.
Other MEPs and defence experts raised questions about how effective it would be, who would pay for it and who would participate in decision make - i.e. when should the missiles be fired.
In a resolution adopted by the Parliament on 25 April MEPs stated that "the US system should be coordinated and interoperable with NATO's Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (TBMD) system".
The proposed interceptors are due to be operational from 2011-2013 - given this timetable it is clear that the next US and Russian President's will take the final decision about the missile shield. To what extent the European Union and NATO will be involved remains an open question.