France urged its European partners on Friday (24 September) to fight austerity by boosting defence cooperation and said Europe risked becoming a pawn of the United States and China if it failed to do so.
EU defence ministers, meeting in Ghent, Belgium, agreed more cooperation was needed and requested a report from the European Defence Agency on areas where this could be achieved, but some cautioned against over-ambition at a time of defence cuts, diplomats said.
French Defence Minister Hervé Morin said European Union states should draw up a list of capabilities which should stay in the national domain and those that should be shared.
"At the rate we're going, we risk Europe gradually becoming a protectorate – 50 years from now we'll become a pawn in the balance between the new powers and we'll be under a joint dominion of China and America," Morin told reporters.
"All the countries of the world are re-arming and the Europeans, who already before the crisis had really weak budgets, have now carried out new reductions."
Morin said most European countries had abandoned the idea of ensuring they had sufficient military capability to exert more influence in the world. He gave as an example Europe's responsibility to help maintain stability in Africa and prevent the spread of Islamist militancy there.
Morin said European countries should increase defence cooperation to boost overall capability, noting France was expanding is cooperation with Britain and Germany.
"The question of European capacity is above all a political question: do the Europeans want to be actors on the international scene, or do they want to be actors in a script that others have written?" he asked, reflecting a debate in the EU on how to improve its global standing.
Belgian Defence Minister Pieter De Crem said some progress was being made and pointed to an agreement signed two weeks ago under which the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany would pool 200 transport aircraft under a single command, with Spain and Luxembourg expressing a willingness to join the project.
"This is the kind of cooperation we will be developing more," he told a news conference.
"The economic and budgetary context is forcing member states to cooperate further […] and we have to turn this into an opportunity to develop cooperation in capabilities."
A European defence official said support was growing for creation of a multinational helicopter wing that could stand by for use in emergencies and to support combat forces.
At the same time, ministers believed it was not the time to become too ambitious, said the official, who asked not to be identified.
European governments have introduced austerity measures to prevent another financial crisis and avert a sovereign debt crisis, prompting protests, and defence has been badly hit.
The defence official said it was important now to implement agreements that had already been reached in areas such as military training and education, logistics and surveillance.
"It's not so much the combat capacity because they all agree that that is nearly impossible to share," he said.
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton did not attend the meeting, addressing it by video link from New York where she was attending the UN General Assembly.
Ashton, a Briton, was criticised for not attending the last informal EU defence ministers' meeting in Spain.
(EURACTIV with Reuters.)