BRUSSELS The European Union executive threw its support on Wednesday behind Franco-German plans to integrate Europe's militaries and defence industries, offering money and coordination to build up their depleted forces.
Spurred by Britain's decision to leave the European Union and pressure from the United States, Brussels has seized on deeper military ties proposed last year by France and Germany to show its citizens the bloc can still provide security in the face of Islamist militant attacks and a resurgent Russia.
"Defence and security is one of the fields through which we can re-launch the European Union," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told a news conferences.
Failings in Europe's bombing campaign in Libya in 2011, when the United States had to step in with refuelling planes, and Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea have reignited EU defence plans that date back to the 1950s but have remained elusive.
Britain had long blocked EU defence integration and France's Defence Minister Sylvie Goulard said on Wednesday now was the time to act: "This is a turning point to better share the costs, but also the defence capacities," she said in a statement.
Although the European Union has more than a dozen military missions abroad, the world's biggest trading bloc has never been able to match its economic might with broad defensive power, preferring to rely on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
But U.S. President Donald Trump's sharp criticism of European allies for low defence spending and his refusal to fully back the alliance added to concerns that without Washington and London, the European Union was vulnerable to a host of threats, from cyber to militant attacks.
A year since proposals on an "European Defence Union" from Paris and Berlin, the European Commission said it was willing to provide money from the EU's common budget for the first time for defence.
The Commission said it would also create a fund to reverse billions of euros in defence cuts to let governments club together to develop and buy new helicopters and planes at lower costs, also opening the door to new drones, cyber warfare systems and other hi-tech gear.
The plan still needs to be approved by EU governments and the European Parliament, where a German leftist lawmaker, Sabine Losing, was critical: "The EU Defence Fund is taking a fatally-flawed direction."
"The defence industry might be pleased as punch to hear that - but it’s a dark day for those of us who are working towards a peaceful and social European Union
5.5 BLN EURO FUND?
While the amounts of money depend on EU governments' willingness to collaborate, the Commission said it would put forward at least 1.5 billion euros ($1.69 billion) a year from the bloc's budget for the research and purchase of assets.
That could generate some 5.5 billion euros a year after 2020 if enough governments come forward with funds, EU officials said, stressing that national governments would remain the owners of all equipment.
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen welcomed the plan. "It is ambitious and shows how far we have gone over the last 12 months in establishing a defence and security union," she said in a statement, calling for more such steps.
Defence research spending in the EU has fallen by a third, or more than 20 billion euros, since 2006. While the European Union spends about half as much as the United States on researching and producing weapons, it only has about 15 percent of the assets that Washington can deploy on the battlefield.
EU governments champion national companies, often leading to duplication and wasted funds, according to EU data. In 80 percent of cases, governments award defence contracts to their own firms rather than use European consortiums.
The European Union's defence fund idea is part of an emerging network of proposals that EU leaders are set to consider at a summit in Brussels on June 22-23.
The European Union is setting up a military headquarters for training missions abroad and wants to make it easier to use its EU battlegroups that have never been deployed.
Paris also wants to set up a system in which coalitions of willing EU countries come together to carry out and pay for military missions together, rather than leaving future peacekeeping operations to bigger countries such as France.
The European Defence Agency, the body that helps EU governments develop their military capabilities, has also proposed a separate fund made up of EU states' public money that would aim to work on smaller, collaborative projects.
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Andrea Shalal in Berlin; Editing by Tom Heneghan)