With NATO, EU sets out plan to enable faster troop movement across Europe

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union announced a plan on Wednesday to enable military personnel and equipment to be moved more quickly across Europe, which NATO sees as vital in the event of a conflict with Russia to overcome border delays and bridges too weak for tanks.

FILE PHOTO: Polish Army PT-91 tanks are seen during Silver Arrow 2017, the multinational military drills involving eleven NATO member countries in Adazi, Latvia October 29, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

Russia’s Zapad war games on NATO’s eastern flank late last year raised alarm in Brussels and Washington that large-scale drills could accidentally trigger a conflict in eastern Europe but leave NATO unable to speedily mass troops there.

Conflicting regulations across 28 EU countries, bridges and tunnels too narrow or weak for heavy equipment and few special allowances for transfers of U.S. troops all make it difficult for NATO, commanders say.

“By facilitating military mobility within the EU, we can be more effective in preventing crises, more efficient in deploying our missions, and quicker in reacting when challenges arise,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said of the so-called Action Plan on Military Mobility.

The plan will now go to EU governments and the European Parliament for discussion.

Following a pilot program last year to identify weak spots along North Sea-Baltic routes, where Russia regularly conducts military drills and has built up its air defenses in Kaliningrad, the European Commission will next year outline the best routes across Europe for military transport.

The Commission, which oversees the EU’s common budget, will also look at areas to upgrade infrastructure and estimate costs, how to streamline customs procedures for munitions and dangerous goods, and seek better cooperation between EU agencies.

Easier diplomatic clearance is also needed.

The plan is a test both for the European Union’s renewed efforts to coordinate on military matters and to work better with NATO, which has its own standards for military-strength bridges, roads, tunnels and airfields.

If the EU were to design its own system, that would create unnecessary duplication and likely anger the United States.

While Washington no longer has Cold War-levels of personnel stationed in Europe, it has begun returning tanks, troops and helicopters to Germany, Poland and the Baltics as part of the West’s deterrent following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Before retiring last year, the top U.S. commander in Europe, Ben Hodges, called for a military zone of free movement similar to the EU’s passport-free travel “Schengen” zone.

Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Hugh Lawson