Nine EU member states have agreed to establish a European military force for rapid deployment in times of crisis, an initiative which has won the backing of the UK as it seeks to maintain defence ties after Brexit.
Spearheaded by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, the joint enterprise will allow national armed forces across Europe to coordinate and react swiftly together.
Ministers from France, Germany, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Estonia, Spain and Portugal signed a letter of intent in Luxembourg on Monday.
Since the election of its new government, Italy has backtracked on its initial support, but Rome has not ruled out the country’s future involvement.
Macron had outlined his vision of strategic autonomy for European defense in a keynote Sorbonne speech last September.
The development has caused some anxiety within Nato, where officials are concerned about any duplication of roles and distancing by European nations from the US.
However, Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, who was in Luxembourg for discussions on European security and defense before a summit of the military alliance in Brussels next month, told reporters: “I welcome this initiative as I believe it can strengthen the readiness of forces. We need high readiness that is exactly what Nato is now focusing on.
“I just see this new initiative as something that can complement and actually reinforce the work which is ongoing in Nato to strengthen and increase the readiness of our forces.”
France’s defense minister, Florence Parly, told the newspaper Le Figaro on Sunday: “Defense of Europe requires a common strategic culture … The deadlines and decisions in the EU are still much too long compared to the urgency that can arise from a critical situation in a country where Europeans would consider that there is a strong stake for their security.”
The European Intervention Initiative is outside the EU’s structures, so will allow for full UK involvement after Brexit.
At a separate meeting of ministers in Luxembourg, rules for military projects within the EU’s so-called Permanent Structured Cooperation on security and defence, or Pesco, were also signed off, although it is unclear as yet whether the UK will be allowed to take part.
The rapid deployment force was initially due to be part of the Pesco arrangements, which have the goal of harmonising defence spending, hardware design and strategic planning, but concerns were raised in Paris that finding agreement among 28 member states in regard to time-sensitive events could prove difficult.
The UK has traditionally been wary of efforts to build a European defense cooperation that could challenge Nato structures, but has become a champion of such initiatives since the vote to leave the EU.
A French government source said the UK’s involvement was key, as the two military powers shared similar cultures and analytical approaches on how to tackle a crisis. “That culture is not shared between every EU member state,” the source said.
The initiative is expected to aid joint planning on events such as natural disasters, crisis intervention or the evacuation of citizens from hot spots.
Since 2007, the EU has had four multinational military “battle groups” but the troops have never been deployed.