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France, Germany and UK show discord on EU defence

  • Summit venue. 'We risk seeing America disengage, and Europe and America drift apart,' Rasmussen said (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

EU countries have agreed to "deepen defence co-operation," but France, Germany and the UK disagreed how to do it at a summit in Brussels on Thursday (19 December).

French leader Francois Hollande went into the meeting calling for a new EU fund to help pay for member states' unilateral operations - such as the French intervention in Mali or the Central African Republic (CAR) - if they serve European security.

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He did not get it.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said France cannot to go to war on its own just because the EU makes decisions slowly and then expect the Union to chip in.

"We cannot fund military missions in which we are not involved in the decision process," she told press after the defence talks.

She added that a separate defence ministers' meeting would be needed to transform the French CAR operation into an EU intervention.

Hollande played down the Merkel snub.

He said the EU foreign service will draft a study on his new fund idea in the first few months of next year.

He added that Poland might, on Friday, agree to also send troops to CAR, in a development which would trigger financial support from an existing EU military aid package - the so-called Athena mechanism of 2004.

"The moment this happens, this will be considered a European operation and ... there will be European funding," he noted.

He also said French spending on Mali and CAR will be "an element of explanation" in future talks with the European Commission on France's budget deficit for 2013 and 2014.

For his part, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he will block EU institutions from owning and operating their own military assets.

"It makes sense for nation states to co-operate over matters of defence to keep us safer … but it isn't right for the European Union to have capabilities, armies, air forces and all the rest of it," he told media.

He also persuaded fellow leaders to dilute the political rhetoric on joint defence.

In one example, a draft text of the summit conclusions had said in its preamble that EU countries will "strengthen [their] strategic autonomy." But on Thursday the phrase - a French concept - was bumped down to page eight of the 10-page communique, which said better industrial co-operation would "enhance its [Europe's] strategic autonomy."

The final text also underlined the primacy of Nato as Europe's security guarantor.

The commission proposed back in July that it should "own and operate" its own surveillance drones. The head of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, on Thursday also said: "We need a headquarters for civil and military missions in Brussels and deployable troops."

But fellow leaders accused Cameron of politicking for the sake of eurosceptic votes at home.

Hollande indicated that member states discarded the commission proposal long ago. "This [Cameron's] statement was, in my opinion, for the large part, a bit false … Nobody envisages the creation of a European army," the French President said.

Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who attended the summit, sympathised with Cameron's concerns.

"Nato is and will remain the bedrock of Euro-Atlanic security," he said. But he added: "Let me stress: It is not Nato or the EU that possess [military] assets. They are owned by the individual nations."

The final summit communique said EU countries will co-operate on four projects.

They pledged to build what Hollande called a "common drone" by 2025 at the latest. They promised to create a bigger fleet of air-to-air refuelling tankers, to work together on "next generation" satellite technology and to do joint training on cyber defence.

They also said EU institutions should spend more money on military R&D and draft a new "EU Maritime Security Strategy."

Meanwhile, Rasmussen repeated his earlier warning that the 22 EU countries which are also Nato members must make a bigger contribution to Nato missions.

"Unless we Europeans take our security seriously, North Americans will rightly ask why they should. Unless we recommit to our own defence, we risk seeing America disengage, and Europe and America drift apart," he said.

The same day in Paris, French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian showed to what extent European armies depend on US technology.

He said France will shortly deploy the first two of its 12 new "Reaper" drones to hunt jihadists in Mali and Niger. But with no European firm able to supply competing surveillance equipment, France bought the Reapers from US company General Atomics.

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