EU states agreed to set up a new HQ for military training missions on Monday (6 March) in what some see as the nucleus of a future European army.
The HQ, to be called a Military Planning and Conduct Capability facility, will be housed in an EU building on Avenue Cortenbergh in Brussels which already hosts EU military experts, the EU Military Staff.
It will have about 30 personnel, most of whom will be pulled in from other EU departments, and will be led by a Finnish lieutenant-general, Esa Pulkkinen, who also heads the military experts bureau.
The HQ is to start work in April and to take charge of three existing EU training missions - in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Mali, and in Somalia - in the next few months.
A senior EU official said on Monday that the HQ would take care of the missions’ administrative and financial needs and would brief EU diplomats on what they were doing.
The official said that, under current arrangements, military commanders in the field in Mali or Somalia, for instance, had to go back and forth to Brussels to do the work.
“Now the field commander can concentrate on field issues”, the official said.
The official said the HQ would also help to coordinate the missions' logistical, medical, legal, and communications' needs.
The official added that the HQ might, following a review in 2018, take charge of military missions that have a combat element, such as Sophia, the EU naval operation designed to fight human smugglers in the Mediterranean Sea.
“It’s for member states to define how much more they want to do,” the official said.
Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign relations chief, said at a foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday that the HQ was “not a European army - I know there is this label going around - but it’s a more effective way of handling our military work”.
She voiced “pride” in the “unanimous” decision, noting that the EU had in the past shown “divisiveness” on military cooperation.
France, Germany, and Italy have led the push for deeper EU military integration as a reaction to the UK’s decision to leave the bloc and due to increasing instability in Europe’s eastern and southern neighbourhood.
Italy, in a “vision” paper last September, called for the creation of a “powerful and usable European Force that can also be employed in support to Nato or UN operations”.
Other states, such as Finland, had called for more “pragmatic” cooperation, while the UK had said it opposed anything that would compete with Nato.
Speaking on Monday, Didier Reynders, the Belgian foreign minister, called the new HQ “a first step”, adding that when it comes to “a European army, maybe later”.
Michael Ayrault, the French foreign minister, said: "It's necessary that we make progress [on defence] in a world of uncertainties".
He added that defence cooperation was "important" for Franco-German relations as well as for European security and that it showed that Europe was "advancing ... despite Brexit and despite the US elections", referring to US president Donald Trump's anti-EU comments.
German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, said: “We took a very important step toward a European security and defence union, because we have become very concrete”.
She said that non-EU states, including post-Brexit UK, could “join in selectively with certain [military] projects or missions”.
“The Norwegians have great interest in this, the British have great interest in this,” she said.
The British defence minister, Michael Fallon, said the UK would “continue to cooperate with our European partners on defence and security”.
He noted that UK had a large component in Sophia and that it was sending troops to Estonia, Poland, and Romania as part of a Nato mission to deter Russian aggression.
Boris Johnson, the British foreign minister, said that Russia was “engaged in undermining countries in the Western Balkans”, mentioning Montenegro, where Moscow stands accused of trying to stage a coup.
He also said Russia’s aggression in east Ukraine was “completely unacceptable.”