September 10, 2019 / 12:33 PM / 11 days ago

EU creates defence and space branch 'to complement NATO'

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union will create a new defence and space arm to help fund, develop and deploy armed forces, the bloc’s incoming chief executive said on Tuesday, naming an ally of French President Emmanuel Macron for the role.

FILE PHOTO: French Minister of Armed Forces Sylvie Goulard arrives at the Elysee Palace to in Paris, France, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

The creation of a defence branch in the European Commission, long resisted by Britain, is an attempt by President-elect Ursula von der Leyen to stem a decline in EU influence, as it faces heavy U.S. pressure to do more for its own security.

“The European Union will never be a military alliance,” von der Leyen said. “But the European Union member states have been told many times ... that common procurement for their armed forces is of utmost importance,” she told a news conference.

Von der Leyen, a former German defence minister, said the plans would benefit the U.S.-led NATO alliance to which many EU states belong, adding: “NATO will always be (our) collective defence.”

Sylvie Goulard, a former long-time EU lawmaker currently at France’s central bank, will be responsible for the new directorate general, as commissioner for industrial policy.

Although von der Leyen gave few details, the defence arm will build on an EU military pact signed in late 2017 to integrate defence forces by working on new weapons and contributing to rapid deployments.

Washington supports the initiative, but has also warned against shutting U.S. companies out of defence contracts.

With Britain, Europe’s other main military power apart from France, set to leave the EU, Germany has backed the French-led effort to identify weak spots in European armies with the goal of filling those gaps together as a bloc.

Space is also becoming an area where the EU wants to develop technology jointly, particularly as China, Russia and the United States develop space weapons that can shut down enemy missiles and air defences or destroy satellites.

The plans will rely on a proposed 13-billion-euro defence fund for developing and buying weapons together, with money from the EU’s common budget for defence research. EU governments are expected to add to the fund to swell its size.

Many governments say Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 was a turning point, after years of defence spending cuts that left EU militaries without vital capabilities and heavily reliant on the United States.

Von der Leyen named Goulard on Tuesday along with 26 other commissioners - one from each member state - to her new team which will take office on Nov. 1.

Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Gareth Jones

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