E.U. Moves a step toward Joint Military Force


BRUSSELS — The European Union took an important step on Monday toward a substantive defense capacity, as 23 of the 28 member countries signed on to a program of joint military investment in equipment, research and development.

The intention is to jointly develop European military abilities and to make them available for operations separately or in coordination with NATO. The effort also aims to reduce the fragmentation of European military spending and to promote more joint projects to reduce duplication and waste.

At a signing ceremony in Brussels, the European foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, called the deal a “historic moment in European defense.”

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister and a former defense minister, said the agreement was “a commitment for countries to do better together,” noting that it “comes at a time of significant tension” in Europe stemming from a more aggressive Russia after the annexation of Crimea, and from terrorist attacks by Islamist militants.

European leaders have also noted President Trump’s lack of enthusiasm for NATO and other multilateral institutions, and they have apparently decided, as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said in May, that “the era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent,” and that “we Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.”

Ms. Merkel did add, however, that European coordination should be taken in partnership with the United States and Britain.

For years, Britain blocked this kind of cooperation, concerned that the creation of a European army would undermine NATO and London’s alliance with Washington. Britain instead favored a bilateral arrangement with France.

But with Britain having voted to leave the European Union, a process known as Brexit, the other countries in the bloc — especially France, Germany, Italy and Spain — saw the long-dormant idea of military cooperation as a way to show their citizens that Brussels could respond to worries about security and terrorism.

Paris had argued for a smaller group of countries that would commit to serious spending on military equipment and capabilities, which Europe mostly lacks outside of NATO, while Berlin argued for a bigger club. France, which will become the most important military power in the European Union after Britain departs, wants to be able to conduct operations in places like Mali with European allies without necessarily having to ask NATO for help.

The German view, as is often the case, won out.

The agreement, known in Brussels-speak as “permanent structured cooperation,” or Pesco, is expected to be formalized by European leaders at a summit meeting in mid-December. But with so many foreign and defense ministers signing on Monday, approval seems a given.

NATO is also supportive of the effort, as European leaders say their intention is not to undermine the Atlantic alliance but simply to act more efficiently on European missions against, for instance, piracy, cyberattacks or hybrid warfare like in Crimea.

Countries would submit a plan of action outlining their military goals, which would be monitored, and national assets would remain under national control. A European Union fund of about 5 billion euros, or $5.8 billion, would be used to buy weapons, with another special fund to finance operations.

The intent is to use increased military spending to “help reinforce the E.U.’s strategic autonomy to act alone when necessary, and with partners whenever possible,” a news statement said. The program is also intended to reduce the number of different weapons systems in Europe and to promote regional military integration, like the existing naval cooperation between Belgium and the Netherlands.

The United States has for many years pressed NATO members to increase their military spending to the goal of 2 percent of gross domestic product. NATO members agreed at a summit meeting in Wales in 2014 to do that by 2024.

The European Union member states that did not sign the new military agreement were Britain, Denmark, Ireland, Malta and Portugal.

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