STRASBOURG The European Union's chief executive called on Wednesday for a joint command headquarters for EU military missions and greater defence cooperation, reviving long-running efforts to reduce reliance on the United States.
In his annual speech to the European Parliament, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said no single EU government had a military big enough to deal with security challenges on Europe's doorstep, from Islamic militants to a more hostile Russia.
The proposals, echoing a plan put forward this week by France and Germany, are part of a broader attempt to rally EU nations after Britain's vote to leave the bloc and to capitalise on its departure - London having opposed the idea.
"We must have a European headquarters and so we should work towards a common military force," Juncker told the European Parliament, although officials stressed this did not amount to an EU army. "This should be to complement NATO," he said, also outlining proposals for a common defence fund.
EU leaders struggling for support have identified security as one of citizens' main concerns following militant attacks in Paris, Brussels and Nice over the last year. Washington is keen to see Europe do more in its own neighbourhood and U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump has questioned whether NATO should support allies not seen to be spending enough on defence.
Leaders must also compensate for Britain's departure from the bloc. As Europe's biggest-spending European power, the British exit could reduce the EU's military capacity by a quarter without steps to remedy the situation, analysts say.
Even before Britain's decision to leave the EU, years of defence budget cuts, as well as militaries that work in isolation, have diminished Europe's ability to run missions including peace keeping, disaster relief and counter-terrorism operations at home and abroad.
The plan, which follows failed attempts in the 1950s and the 1990s, would not mean soldiers all wear the same uniforms, EU officials say. It involves more cooperation among countries that wish to run missions together, while avoiding duplication in developing military assets at the industrial level.
More than three-quarters of EU government defence contracts are awarded to their national industries, while the bloc has 19 types of armoured infantry fighting vehicle, compared to just one in the United States, according to EU data.
"From an economic point of view, bringing together our military resources could be clearly justified," Juncker said. "The lack of cooperation is something that is costing Europe 20 to 100 billion euros a year," he said.
Still, the United States is wary about a new EU military headquarters, worried it would replicate NATO's command centre, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, in Belgium.
Washington wants to see EU governments spend more money on equipment and not waste it on headquarters. One solution could be to turn an existing national army and navy command centre in Germany or France into a European headquarters, experts say.
(Reporting by Alastair Madonald, writing by Robin Emmott in Brussels; editing by Ralph Boulton)