BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Britain said on Tuesday it would oppose any EU proposals to combine European forces into a single army while it is still in the bloc, but France and Germany said no such plans existed and won support from NATO to strengthen EU defenses.
At a meeting of EU defense ministers in Bratislava, Britain’s Michael Fallon said it was up to NATO, not the European Union, to defend Europe against a more hostile Russia and that some northern and eastern EU countries agreed.
France and Germany had hoped that Britons’ decision to leave the EU, as well as London’s need for goodwill in its exit negotiations, would leave the path open for common defense proposals that are meant to pull the remaining governments together. The proposals were presented on Tuesday.
But there appeared to be confusion about what was on the table. Italy, France and German have come forward with proposals to bring together the EU’s disparate military assets, spend more, develop technology and rely less on the United States, which pays the lion’s share of NATO’s military outlays.
Fallon insisted he saw the makings of a EU army.
“There are member states who would like to see...a single set of forces. That looks and sounds to me like a European army, and we would oppose that,” Fallon told reporters.
Britain’s objections also center on proposals for a joint EU military headquarters, possibly in Brussels, fearing that would suck financial resources away from NATO, where allies have spent years cutting budgets following the global financial crisis.
“Europe is littered with HQs, what we don’t need is another one,” Fallon said.
Britain retains full voting rights until it leaves the European Union, although defense decisions will rely on majority voting. Fallon said Sweden, the Netherlands, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania had voiced concern about Franco-German proposals, which was confirmed by an EU diplomat.
Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti countered that a number of other EU countries, including Spain and the Czech Republic, backed the range of proposals being discussed.
EU diplomats said the military headquarters was one aspect of a strategy to be agreed at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels in December. The proposals also include increasing spending on military missions, jointly developing assets such as helicopters and drones, expanding peace-keeping abroad and working to counter state-sponsored hackers in cyberspace.
Standing together, Germany’s Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and her French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian were at pains to stress there were no plans for army of European soldiers wearing the same uniforms.
“On the contrary,” von der Leyen said. “It is about bundling the various strengths of European countries to be ready to act together quickly.”
She cited how Europe had struggled to coordinate support during the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. In 2011, the British and French air campaign in Libya also showed Europe’s limits, as they quickly became reliant on a NATO-led operation including the United States, Canada and Norway for refueling planes, logistics and military know-how.
EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who has put forward her own proposals, said there was “nothing ideological” about what the bloc was trying to do.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who was also at the meeting, welcomed debate on strengthening European military cooperation. “There is no contradiction between a strong European defense and a strong NATO,” he said.
Stoltenberg also said EU governments would need to spend more on defense. With Britain outside of the European Union, 80 percent of NATO spending would be provided by non-EU countries even though most EU members are part of the alliance, he said.
European military spending is a fraction of the United States’ and only a handful of countries, including Britain, Estonia and Greece, spend generously on defense.
France is a major European military power and Germany has many military assets but has traditionally been cautious given its history in the 20th century’s two world wars.
Additional reporting by Tatiana Jancarikova, Editing by Angus MacSwan