Britain has blocked a proposal backed by France, Germany and Poland to establish a permanent headquarters for EU defence and security operations, saying it would duplicate NATO structures and be an unnecessary expense.
The proposal for a permanent Operations Headquarters (OHQ), put forward by Briton Catherine Ashton, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy and backed by France and other EU states, was discussed at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels yesterday (18 July).
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain had vetoed the idea, which under EU rules would have to be agreed by all 27 member states.
"I have made very clear that the United Kingdom will not agree to such a permanent OHQ. We will not agree to it now, we will not agree to it in the future. That is a red line for us," he told reporters.
"We are opposed to this idea because we think it duplicates NATO structures and permanently disassociates EU planning from NATO planning," Hague said.
"Secondly, it's likely to be a much more costly solution than existing structures; and thirdly, a lot can be done by improving the structures that already exist."
Hague said Britain had argued that what was really needed was an improvement in defence capabilities in Europe and in the political will to use them in places such as in the Balkans, as well as in Libya, where NATO is conducting a campaign of bombing to enforce a UN Security Council resolution.
Hague said there were other ways to improve planning under the EU's fledgling Common Security and Defence Policy, such as ensuring operations' commanders were deployed early and by building stronger links between national defence structures and EU institutions.
He conceded that most EU states had been in favour of Ashton's proposal but added: "This is […] a decision by unanimity and so the UK position will stand."
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France had backed Ashton's proposal, but was willing to discuss other proposals given the objections of Britain, which sees strengthening EU institutions as impinging on national sovereignty.
"We are perfectly open to the idea of continuing to work on the different possibilities," he said.
"But for us, progress of the Common Security and Defence Policy is essential. We are in a dangerous and unpredictable world and no single European country has the means to have all the necessary defence capabilities alone."
He said the Libya operation, in which France and Britain have been at the forefront while the United States has taken a back seat, showed the need to improve European defence capabilities.
The division between Britain and France underscores their continuing differences over the extent of EU integration, despite a landmark defence treaty signed by the two countries last year.
EURACTIV with Reuters