VILNIUS, Sept 8 Germany's defence minister
called for a European "defence union" on Thursday during a visit
to the Baltic state of Lithuania, where Berlin is preparing to
lead a battle group of about 1,000 troops as a deterrence
against neighbouring Russia.
The European Union has long considered forging closer
defence ties while not undermining the U.S.-led NATO alliance,
to which many EU member states also belong, especially in the
face of a more aggressive Russia and worsening conflicts in the
The decision of Britain, a staunch opponent of any EU
"army", to quit the EU has also removed an obstacle to the
closer European defence cooperation favoured by Germany, France
and many eastern European countries.
"It's time to move forward to a European defence union,
which is basically a 'Schengen of defence',", Ursula von der
Leyen told reporters in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
"That is what the Americans expect us to do."
Schengen refers to the passport-free zone covering much of
Europe, a pillar of the more integrated Europe that Germany
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also recently endorsed the
idea of more joint military operations with the three Baltic
republics, all NATO and EU members which have felt especially
vulnerable following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea
peninsula and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Germany already has close military ties and joint forces
with Poland, the Netherlands and France outside NATO structures,
though Berlin and Paris also say they do not envisage
establishing a European army.
"When we have threats that are surrounding us, we all know
no country by its own will be able to manage that. But we
together, we Europeans, we are very strong if we improve our
capabilities as Europeans," von der Leyen said.
The German-led battle group in Lithuania will operate air
defences when it is deployed early next year, she added.
"There will be a comprehensive air defence", she said. "We
are very glad that we find many European friends who want to
join, like the Dutch or the French, for example."
NATO leaders agreed in July to move four battalions
totalling 3,000 to 4,000 troops to the Baltic states and eastern
Poland for the first time and to increase air and sea patrols to
reassure those countries following Russia's seizure of Crimea.
(Reporting By Andrius Sytas; Editing by Gareth Jones)