BRUSSELS – European Union leaders agreed on limited steps toward greater defense cooperation Thursday, but British opposition to separate armed forces for the bloc highlighted differences over how far they can go.
The leaders also gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to a new mechanism to handle ailing banks, but analysts said it falls short of what is needed to stabilize the bloc’s financial system.
At their first summit dedicated to defense since 2008, the 28 leaders were looking for ways to boost military capabilities at a time when budgets are under intense pressure.
“Pooling and sharing” is the catchphrase that all agree on, but they differ over whether this means separate EU forces or just beefed-up national militaries that work together better.
“Cooperation in the area of military capability development is crucial to maintaining key capabilities, remedying shortfalls and avoiding” duplication, the leaders said in a statement.
They called on member states to “deepen defense cooperation by improving the capacity to conduct missions and operations,” all based on a “more integrated” European defense industry.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy warned that as spending is cut, defense companies are “struggling to remain competitive and cutting edge.”
“Defense is a matter of security . . . but it is also related to industry and jobs,” Van Rompuy said.
Among specific steps, leaders approved joint EU development of drones and in-flight refueling aircraft, satellites and cyber-defense.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he agrees with cooperation but could not accept a separate EU military force. “It makes sense for nation-states to cooperate over matters of defense to keep us all safer . . . but it is not right for the EU to have capabilities, armies, air forces and the rest of it,” Cameron said as he arrived.
Britain insists its armed forces must remain strictly under national control, operating through NATO, not the EU, to ensure European security.
Other EU leaders highlighted the benefits of cooperation rather than the drawbacks.
On foreign and security policy, “Europe can work much closer together,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “We can pool our armament activities but above all, we must also have a coordinated policy.”
NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who attended the summit’s defense session, said in an interview earlier this week that he wants to see EU leaders commit to do more, citing the pressing need for drones and in-flight refueling aircraft.
“If European nations invest more in military capabilities, they will also make stronger contributions to NATO,” Rasmussen said Thursday. “There is no such thing as a European army, only national capabilities.”
Pressed on whether the EU should look at shared military capabilities, he said he was talking about individual EU nations boosting their armed forces through increased cooperation, or “smart defense” in the NATO lexicon.
Britain and France have frequently taken the lead in military action — as in Libya — with their EU allies contributing logistical or other aid but not troops on the ground.
In 2010, the EU launched the European External Action Service, its diplomatic arm, which has quickly established a global presence with a voice in key dossiers, such as Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
It also has an embryonic Common Security and Defense Policy and a European Defense Agency tasked to promote military cooperation.
The European Union has mounted limited joint military operations, such as anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa, where it works alongside a similar NATO force.
Late Wednesday, EU finance ministers reached a deal on the technical details for the agency dealing with failing banks, establishing a final element of the 17-nation eurozone’s planned financial market overhaul. That so-called banking union is the most ambitious step in integrating Europe’s economy since the adoption of the common currency.
French President Francois Hollande said the new centralized institution for saving or shutting down troubled banks across the 17-nation eurozone will help prevent new financial crises and spare governments from having to save failing banks.
But analysts were much less impressed, pointing to the new institution’s cumbersome decision-making structure and its lack of readily available joint funds.
Merkel is pushing for legally binding contracts committing eurozone nations to carry out agreed-on policies and reforms that will be supervised by the EU, with the incentive of offering countries some unspecified financial assistance in return.
Many countries, however, are loath to give up yet more sovereignty to the Brussels-based body. Leaders agreed to postpone a decision on the issue until October next year.
The new institution, the “single resolution mechanism,” will be advised by the joint banking supervisor and have the power to shut down or restructure banks across Europe.
It will have a fund at its disposal that is set to swell to €55 billion ($76 billion) over 10 years as banks pay a levy. Before any of its money is used, a bank’s creditors will be forced to take losses.
Until the joint €55 billion is available, closing or recapitalizing ailing banks will be paid for by a complex combination of funds from national bank rescue authorities and the European rescue mechanism.