Under proposals agreed by EU member states, the bloc could send rapid response forces abroad for the first time. But plans for a European military headquarters or an EU army were played down.
The plan, set out by EU defense and foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday, could allow the bloc to send forces to stabilize a crisis before United Nations peace keepers can take over, EU officials said.
The proposals, which were drafted by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, based on Franco-German recommendations, also cement a bloc-wide willingness to act militarily without the US, if appropriate.
But Mogherini insisted the plans would not undermine NATO, saying it was about "providing the capabilities, the structures, the tools, and the financial resources" needed to tackle external conflicts and crises, build the capacities of partner states and protect the EU and its citizens.
Trump fuels fears
Although they predate last week's US presidential election, the plans have gained extra relevance since Donald Trump's win. The Republican president-elect has cast doubt over US commitments to NATO unless European allies increase defense spending. The US, through NATO, has guaranteed Europe's security since 1949.
Key aspects of the EU's defense plans include: improving the civilian response to threats such as migration, terrorism and organized crime; more funds to develop capabilities such as a euro-drone and fighter jets; and projects including a European mobile hospital and a logistical hub.
But plans for a new European army and a new EU military headquarters in Brussels were played down.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen described the proposals as a "great step" for European defense cooperation.
"Whatever the outcome of the American election, it was always clear to us that Europe must shoulder more responsibility," she told reporters.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the defense plan was an "essential step forward" for Europe to show it can take defense decisions on its own in an "increasingly uncertain world".
A NATO detraction?
But sharp differences emerged around the proposals, particularly from Britain, who voted in June to renounce its membership of the EU and who has long opposed any plans that may undermine NATO.
British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon bluntly told the EU to stop "dreaming of a European army," or "planning expensive new [military] headquarters." He called on other European countries to increase their military spending.
Britain is one of just five NATO members that meet a requirement to spend two percent of its GDP on military spending, along with Poland, Greece, Estonia and the US, according to NATO 2015 estimates. Ten other countries have promised to up their financial commitment.
EU leaders must still sign off on the plan in December, while the budget for the proposals will be worked out next year, officials said.
mm/se (AFP, dpa, Reuters)