The rapid reaction force should, in the coming years, be able to conduct "simultaneously, outside its territory, a series of civilian missions and military operations of varying scope," heads of state and government said in a joint statement issued at the end of two days of talks in Brussels on Friday, Dec. 12.
Providing fresh impetus to a common EU defense policy had been a pet project of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose six-month term as chairman of the bloc's meetings expires at the end of the year.
In their joint statement, EU leaders acknowledged the need to strengthen and optimize Europe's defense capabilities and vowed to work more closely with NATO.
Friday's statement said the bloc aims, with the implementation of a rapid reaction force, to be able to conduct up to 20 missions simultaneously.
The EU is currently engaged in a number of peacekeeping or civilian operations around the world, including Kosovo, Afghanistan, Georgia and Chad. It has just launched its first anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia, consisting of up to six warships and three surveillance aircraft.
Torn between EU and NATO
EU leaders, however, have been unable to agree on a peacekeeping mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo, despite repeated requests from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The UN currently has a 17,000-strong peacekeeping mission in DR Congo, mainly with troops from African countries. The mission has not been able to contain increasing violence between rebel Laurent Nkunda and pro-government militias.
An estimated 250,000 people have been displaced from their homes in recent weeks.
The issue of EU involvement has highlighted the problem of getting the bloc's 27 member states to mobilize forces for EU missions while at the same time being asked to boost their contributions to NATO operations around the world.
The EU already has two battle groups consisting of 1,500 men each, one led by Britain, the other by Germany. Political obstacles have so far prevented their deployment.
EU divided on role in DR Congo
Critics say that the creation of a larger 60,000-strong force is an overly-ambitious target for the EU. NATO -- which has 28 member states, one more than the EU -- has spent nearly a decade trying to get its own member states to contribute to a rapid reaction force of just 25,000 soldiers.
Troop contributions to an EU force would be made on a voluntary basis.
Though he has championed a common EU defense force, Sarkozy questioned the need for a DR Congo mission.
"Isn't it better to draw on regional forces, who are ready to go, rather than European forces?" he said.
But Belgium's Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht said the bloc had "a moral responsibility" to intervene. Belgium was formerly a colonial power in DR Congo.
Britain has continually favored contributing to the existing UN force rather than sending a separate EU mission.