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EU to set up joint command center for military missions

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union states will take the formal decision on Monday to create a joint command center for the bloc’s military missions, a symbolic step in the renewed quest for more security and defense cooperation, officials and diplomats in Brussels said.

The politically-sensitive issue of pulling EU states closer together on defense has been stalled for years, but the theme returned to the EU agenda following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and amid a growing threat from Islamic militants.

Suggestions by the new U.S. President Donald Trump that he could be less committed to the security of Washington’s NATO allies in Europe if they do not meet their defense spending goals have galvanized the EU, creating a new sense of urgency.

Last December, EU leaders agreed to explore ways to establish “a permanent operational planning and conduct capability at the strategic level”.

On Monday, foreign and defense ministers of the 28 EU states meeting in Brussels will decide on creating the so-called Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) so that it can take over this spring.

It would command the bloc’s “non-executive military missions”. These include the three military training missions the bloc now runs in Mali, Somalia and Central African Republic.

In the future, it would also cover any capacity-building, monitoring or demobilization and disarmament military missions.

While symbolically significant, the MPCC would in practice consist of some 30 people and sit within the bloc’s foreign policy service in Brussels. It will most likely be led by the current head of the military staff at the EU’s foreign arm.

Highlighting how controversial the matter still is among EU states, they debated at length on whether the head of the new body should be called a “commander”. They eventually settled for “director”.

Any movement towards an “EU military headquarters” has long been opposed by Britain, the bloc’s leading military power, but the idea has been revived by Germany and France since the British voted to leave the EU.

Another EU and NATO state Poland - which has for a long time based its hard security guarantees on Washington and the transatlantic military alliance - is worried that more defense cooperation in the European bloc could weaken NATO’s resolve in Europe.

The incremental step is, therefore, a compromise.

“We are very excited, symbolically it is important. Whatever you want to call it, it is a step towards an EU military headquarters with a commander,” a French diplomat said.

Additional reporting by Tom Koerkemeier; Editing by Toby Davis