BRUSSELS • The European Union took a step towards closer defence ties yesterday, with 23 states signing a landmark pact aiming to boost cooperation after Brexit and as Russia flexes its muscles to the east.
The Permanent Structured Cooperation on defence agreement (Pesco) seeks to improve EU coordination on defence and weapons systems development.
It is part of efforts led by Germany and France to reboot the EU after Britain's decision to leave and follows the announcement in June of a €5.5 billion (S$8.7 billion) European Defence Fund.
The EU's diplomatic chief, Ms Federica Mogherini, hailed the agreement as "a new page of European defence", saying countries had already proposed more than 50 projects.
Similar efforts to deepen military links have been frustrated for decades, partly by Britain's fierce opposition to anything that might lead to a European army.
But Brexit and Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 have once again brought the need for a strong European security stance back into focus.
The shift in United States policy under President Donald Trump - who berated European partners on military spending at a Nato summit in May - has also led many to question whether Washington can be relied upon to protect Europe as it has in the past.
"It was important for us, especially after the election of the American President, that we can organise ourselves independently as Europeans," German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said.
"This is complementary to Nato, but we also see that nobody will solve the security problems that Europe has in its neighbourhood - we have to do it ourselves."
Nato will retain its primary role, but Ms Mogherini said the EU could offer resources the alliance does not have, such as navigating security and development issues in Africa.
Pesco could, in theory, lead to the creation of a European operational headquarters or logistics base, but will first focus on projects to develop new military equipment such as tanks or drones.
The agreement commits countries to "regularly increasing defence budgets in real terms" as well as devoting 20 per cent of defence spending to procurement and 2 per cent to research and technology.
Ms Mogherini said that by coordinating their efforts, European countries would get better value for money in defence.
"The real issue is not how much we spend but the fact we spend in a fragmented manner," she said.
The deal also binds countries to provide "substantial support" in areas, including personnel, for EU military missions .
The deal is set to be formally launched on the eve of the next EU summit next month, at which point it will become legally binding.