European leaders gave the final go-ahead today to the creation of their own rapid-reaction military force, a contingent of 60,000 troops that could be operational by 2003.

Emphasizing that the force will fully cooperate and consult with U.S.-led NATO, the European Union declaration said the EU should be able, "where NATO is not engaged, to launch and conduct EU-led military operations in responses to international crises."

The creation of the force and a council to command it marked a new stage for the 15-nation EU, which in the past year has taken major steps to transform itself from an economically united free-trade zone to a body with its own foreign policy representative and, in some cases, its own foreign policy agenda.

"Until now, the European Union could react in the political, economic and humanitarian fields, but it had no military means," French President Jacques Chirac said. "Now it will have at its disposal all the true means of a foreign policy."

Approval of the force came as EU leaders ended their two-day meeting here in a celebratory get-together with leaders of 13 new candidates for membership. Most notable among them is Turkey, which was approved for candidacy after its government accepted EU demands late Friday on improving human rights and other issues.

Appearing here with leaders of the other candidate nations--mostly from eastern and central Europe--Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said he accepted the EU's demands that it make improvements on human rights issues and settle differences with Greece, an EU member.

Among the commitments Turkey made was to abolish the death penalty. If it does so in a timely fashion, convicted Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan might win a reprieve from the death sentence imposed on him by a Turkish court in June.

"We will try to abolish it as soon as we can," Ecevit said, noting that it may take his coalition government time to effect the change.

He also promised to adhere to Turkey's commitments to settle its territorial disputes with Greece over islands in the Aegean Sea and accept the entry of Cyprus into the EU even if the island remains divided between Greek and Turkish interests.

Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, in a sign that tensions have thawed between the two nations since they offered each other aid after earthquakes this year, said, "I think that it's a very big day for Turkey, it's a big day for Europe, it's a big day for Greece."

Although actual entry into the EU is probably more than a decade away, Turkey's candidacy marks a reversal for EU leaders, who flatly rejected its nomination two years ago. And it marks an expansion of the very concept of Europe.

The European military force, the result of more than a year of preparation and discussion, also represents a new Europe. During NATO's campaign against Yugoslavia this spring, Europe found itself ceding military leadership to the United States, in part because of the fragmented nature and low capacity of its combined armed forces.

The new force won't necessarily solve those problems unless it has more resources, and in designing it, officials of some countries have said pointedly that other members will have to increase their defense spending.

The Clinton administration is in favor of Europe taking the regional lead politically and militarily, as long as the United States and other NATO members that are not part of the EU--including Canada, Iceland, Norway and Turkey--are consulted on European decision-making.

Some members of Congress, including Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have expressed concern that Europe is creating an army too far beyond American influence. And U.S. officials want to make sure they have a say in how the new structure deputizes European officials from within NATO's chain of command, as France and some other countries want to do.

Leaders emphasized today that the rapid-reaction force and its command structure would step in only where NATO chooses not to.

"This is a move entirely complementary to NATO," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said. "It's not against NATO or a substitute for NATO. We are coming together as sovereign nations on defense; we are not creating a European army."

CAPTION: Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said Turkey will take action on human rights issues and settle disputes with Greece.