The European Union will draw up plans by November for its member states to cooperate more closely on defence, the bloc's top diplomat said Tuesday, while Britain warned that it would oppose anything resembling an EU army.
A strengthened military role for the EU has come to be seen as crucial following recent terrorist attacks in Europe. There is also hope that it can help rebuild trust in the bloc following Britain's shock decision to withdraw.
The EU will prepare an "implementation plan" for defence ministers to review in November, which will define "a common level of ambition ... and the capabilities required," foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Tuesday.
"The focus will be on practical, concrete, operational, pragmatic steps that we can take within the existing treaties," she told journalists in Bratislava, after informal talks with the ministers.
Mogherini said this could include supporting investments in the European defence sector or paving the way for the deployment of EU battlegroups, which have existed since 2007 to provide quick military intervention in crisis situations but have never been used.
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen listed the creation of a European mobile hospital or logistical hub as potential ideas.
Germany, France and others have also floated the idea of creating a single military headquarters to oversee EU civilian and military missions.
But they will first have to convince Britain, which has long been averse to military integration and will continue to have a say in EU matters until it leaves the bloc - a process expected to take years.
"We're going to continue to oppose any idea of an EU army or EU army headquarters," British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon declared in Bratislava.
He argued that such steps would "undermine" the NATO military alliance, which consists of 22 EU member states in addition to Albania, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Turkey and the United States.
"NATO must remain the cornerstone of our defence and the defence of Europe," Fallon said.
Von der Leyen and her French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, were quick to insist on Tuesday that an EU army is not foreseen.
"This is about better integrating the different strengths of European countries, so that we can together act faster," von der Leyen said.
Under the EU's Lisbon treaty, a group of member states can strengthen collaboration on military issues though a so-called permanent structured cooperation.
This requires only majority approval and could in theory be used to sidestep British opposition. But Mogherini said she does not see it as a way for 27 member states to outvote Britain.
"Today in our three hours [of] discussion ... with all the ministers, I never heard once the word 'veto,' I never heard once the word 'blocking' and I never heard once the word 'army,'" she said.
Anything done on European defence will be "in full complementarity with NATO," Mogherini added.
Jens Stoltenberg, who heads the military alliance and took part in Tuesday's talks, said there is "no contradiction between strong European defence and a strong NATO."
"The importance is that we avoid duplication, that it is complimentary and that the dialogue between EU and NATO is transparent and open," he said.