Federica Mogherini, the club’s foreign affairs chief, said troops could swiftly be deployed under the EU banner into a war zone after nations agreed to set up a wide-ranging joint defence fund.
The Italian eurocrat revealed member states have signed off on a joint way forward to pay for the rapid deployment of the EU’s battlegroups, which are made up of troops from the national armies.
Nineteen countries have signed up to pool their resources into a Cooperative Financial Mechanism (CFM), which would be automatically triggered to finance European military missions overseas.
Britain will not be part of the scheme, which it has long feared is the embryo of an EU army, but Ms Mogherini insisted the UK will continue to be one of the bloc’s closest defence partners after Brexit.
And she also fired a warning shot off to Theresa May’s government, urging her not to bring security issues into the divorce talks and claiming the remaining 27 member states have more military clout that Britain.
Her remarks come after a senior official in the European External Action Service (EEAS), which is headed up by the Italian eurocrat, told reporters a battlegroup could be deployed in “two or three months” if necessary.
Ms Mogherini insisted that national governments would retain over all control of troops they contribute to such missions at all times and insisted the move was not a “militarisation” of the EU. And asked if a battlegroup could be deployed within a year, she replied “sure, sure”, before joking: “But I would not create a crisis just to deploy a battlegroup.”
Today defence ministers from across Europe, including Britain’s Michael Fallon, met in Brussels to thrash out the latest part of the EU’s global strategy.
Amongst the measures approved was a decision to pass command of planning EU missions, currently led by the Council of EU leaders, to a ‘director’ of a new centralised military HQ in Brussels.
The director, who will be Finnish Lt General Esa Pulkkinen, will now assume control of all non-executive missions – usually peacekeeping operations – involving European troops “within days”.
There are currently three such missions in Somalia, the Central African Republic and Mali, but none of these have up until now involved the deployment of an entire battlegroup.
EU officials are also keen to press forward with plans to centralise the cost of funding the bloc’s military deployments, with all member states chipping in, as a way of encouraging future deployments.
Currently the countries supplying troops and equipment have to stump up all the costs unless all the other members agree to help, which eurocrats say has discouraged them from putting boots on the ground.
Under the new rules eurocrats want to remove the necessity for the financing of every proposed deployment to be approved by the Council by automatically sharing the costs out for certain “support elements”, such as field supplies and tactical transport, instead.
The change could also be tied in with the creation of a permanent structured cooperation – known as PESCO – which is a proposed legal agreement binding member states’ militaries more closely together.
We have many countries that are not members of the EU that contribute to our military and civilian missions
Ms Mogherini said member states had agreed to start a review on centralised costing via the Athena mechanism, a funding package for EU military operations of which Britain is still currently a part.
She said: “This is about liquidity. Too often, projects cannot get off the ground or are delayed because countries don’t have the money available. This would ring-fence funds especially for defence.”
The Italian eurocrat said an example of when battlegroups may be deployed was if a civil war broke out and a rapidly available peacekeeping force was required whilst the UN organised a longer-term solution.
And when asked about Britain’s potential future role in such missions beyond Brexit, Ms Mogherini strongly hinted that the UK is still considering taking part.
She said: “We have many countries that are not members of the EU that contribute to our military and civilian missions.
“Obviously if you’re not a member state you cannot take part in the decisions but you can contribute, so we will define together how the future relationship will be in this field.”
But she warned Mrs May: “This is not a field where one side has to perceive itself stronger than the other,
“On the contrary the UK is a strong security and foreign policy player but nothing compared to the other 27 together so there is no trade-off imaginable.”
A top EEAS official said the bloc now wanted to create a series of “battlegroup plus” formations which would have instantly available “plug-ins” such as additional maritime and air support in the event of deployment.
Asked when such a battlegroup may conceivably be deployed, they replied: “It’s very difficult for me to tell you if in two or three months we’ll have a crisis that requires the deployment of a battlegroup or not.
“What we’ve trying to achieve is removing as many hurdles as possible that have made the decision [to deploy] more difficult in the past.”
They continued: “If you’re sending a battlegroup something is already really wrong there and it will certainly require force and capacity and readiness to use that force if necessary.
“So you’re taking strong political risks, you’re putting people’s lives at risk, so this is not an easy decision to make.
“If in addition you’re adding all the weight of financial costs you’re not facilitating the political will which is required for the deployment of a battlegroup, and that’s why member states have decided to look at common costs to see if it can be more easily spread.”
The official said the idea of the plans was to boost the EU’s effectiveness in terms of defence research and procurement and to “bring together existing capabilities to enhance our effectiveness in external deployment”.
They added that ministers had already “floated ideas” including common transport components, headquarters, communication hubs and medical facilities as part of increased cooperation between the member states.