The European Union is expected within days to sign off on plans for a small military command centre in Brussels, a symbolic step towards deeper defence ties that the UK will not seek to block.
After years of stop-start moves, European leaders vowed to improve defence co-operation in the wake of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the spread of conflict and instability on the EU’s southern and eastern borders.
The plans took shape last year when EU ministers agreed a blueprint to improve Europe’s response to conflicts and crises, although ideas for a Brussels headquarters were scaled back. The UK secretary of state for defence, Michael Fallon – a long-term sceptic on EU defence – backed the initiative because there was no “EU command and control”.
EU foreign and defence ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday are expected to take the next step, with an agreement expected on establishing a “military planning and conduct capability”, a Brussels-based team to command existing army and civilian missions.
Expected to start work this spring, the unit would command three existing EU military training missions in Mali, Somalia and Central African Republic. In future, it could be running missions aimed at peace-building and disarmament.
The UK is not expected to block the plans, which have to be agreed by all member states. Diplomats and officials said there was a logical strategic gap to fill, pointing out that traditional military structures mean a field commander is supported by an officer at a distant headquarters.
In a sign of the political sensitivities, countries debated at length whether the head of the new body should be called a “commander”, before settling on “director”. That person is likely to be the head of military staff in the EU’s foreign policy service, with a team of 30 people. “We are not looking at some enormous new building [in Brussels],” said one diplomat.
The EU runs 16 military and civilian missions, including the British-led naval force protecting ships from Somali pirates, operated from Northwood in north-west London, and a small civilian team working to keep the peace in Georgia, following the Caucasus state’s 2008 war with Russia.