Germany eyes EU defence union without Britain to fight terrorism, confront Russia

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen presents the new military roadmap in Berlin on Wednesday (July 13).
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen presents the new military roadmap in Berlin on Wednesday (July 13).PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN (REUTERS/AFP) - Germany and France want to forge closer defence cooperation in the European Union following the departure of Britain, which has "paralysed" such initiatives in the past, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday.

She made the remarks while presenting the first big-picture defence paper in a decade for Europe's top economy said it would work with EU and Nato allies to tackle cross-border challenges from Islamist terrorism to climate change and migrant flows.

"Germany is a globally highly connected country that - due to its economic, political and military weight, but also in view of its own vulnerability - has a responsibility to actively help shape the world order," says the so-called White Paper.

Von der Leyen said Germany and France would lead talks with other countries to assess their appetite for common projects and with the long-term aim of moving toward a common security and defence union.

"I can tell you from experience that in the past Britain has said it will not do these things," she told a news conference. "This paralysed the European Union on the issues of foreign and security policy. This cannot mean that the rest of Europe remains inactive, but rather we need to move forward on these big issues."

Britain, where sentiment against ceding sovereignty to EU-wide authorities was always strong, voted in a referendum on June 23 to leave the bloc after 43 years of membership.

Von der Leyen suggested the construction of a European"civilian-military headquarters", from which EU missions could be deployed, as well as a European medical force.

In the report on security policy, the government said:"Germany's security environment has become even more complex, volatile, dynamic and thus increasingly unpredictable".

The government highlighted the threat posed by Russia, which it said was "openly calling the European peace order into question" with a willingness to use force to advance its interests and to redraw borders in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

"This has far-reaching implications for security in Europe and thus for the security of Germany," it said, stressing the need for "increased resilience" in defence policy while cooperating with Russia on common interests. "Without a fundamental change in policy, Russia will constitute a challenge to the security of our continent in the foreseeable future."

Germany is ready to "help meet current and future security and humanitarian challenges," said the roadmap approved by Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet.

The strategic outlook is seen as a milestone for a country that, burdened by guilt about Nazi terror and the Holocaust, for decades stepped softly on the world stage and only joined peacekeeping missions in the 1990s in the Balkans.

More recently, Germany has deployed troops to Afghanistan, Mali and elsewhere, and backed the multi-national alliance against the Islamic State group by arming Kurdish fighters in Iraq and flying surveillance missions over Syria.

Dr Merkel has taken a key role in seeking to defuse the West's conflict with Russia over the Ukraine crisis, but last week also pledged troops to bolster Nato in eastern Europe from next year.

The paper points out that "Russia is turning away from a close partnership with the West and emphasising strategic rivalry" and that, unless it changes course, it "will for the foreseeable future represent a challenge to security on our continent".

It also lists dynamic and interconnected challenges in a world where emerging powers in Asia and South America are assuming a greater role and an "arch of instability" stretches through much of northern Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

The "most immediate threat" for Germany is that of a major terrorist attack of the kind from which it has been spared so far, the paper said, adding that in such a case the military should be able to respond within German borders.