Seeking to protect NATO, Britain could yet thwart EU defense plans
A Union flag flies next to the flag of the European Union in Westminster, London, Britain June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo
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By Robin Emmott and Andrea Shalal
BRUSSELS/BERLIN (Reuters) - Britain will resist new European Union defense proposals if it feels they undermine NATO, British officials say, in a warning to France and Germany that London will defend its military interests even as it negotiates to leave the EU bloc.
Paris and Berlin proposed last week reviving EU common defense plans long blocked by Britain, partly to give the bloc a sense of purpose after Britons' vote to quit the EU and also to counter the loss of the union's biggest defense spender.
Those plans include a joint and permanent EU headquarters for civilian and military missions, possibly in Brussels, which London says will drain away finite resources when NATO already has its military command center, also in Belgium.
Most EU members, including Britain, France and Germany, are also NATO allies. But Europe wants to be able to act independently of the United States in its neighborhood.
While not proposing an EU army, Paris and Berlin see security and defense cooperation as one of the few areas where the remaining 27 EU governments could find common ground and show that the EU is still relevant after a British departure.
But Britain's Secretary of Defense Michael Fallon told The Times newspaper on Sept. 16 that London would resist any attempts to duplicate infrastructure that already existed in NATO, also saying there could be no "rival" to NATO.
Fallon said Britain vowed to be an active member of the Council of EU governments until the country leaves the bloc and he will attend an EU defense ministers meeting in Bratislava next Tuesday where plans for EU military cooperation will be discussed.
British diplomats have also stressed to EU colleagues that London would oppose "ideas that would hamper the relationship with NATO and Britain," according to someone present at the meeting in Brussels this week. "Britain may not be as constructive as we expected," another source, with knowledge of the discussions, said.
London supports working with EU militaries in some areas, such as in disaster relief or confronting cyber attacks. It welcomes more efficient security coordination between governments, which the EU proposals also seek to promote.
But Britain's attitude is a sign that despite momentum, the EU's biggest push on defense since the 1990s could still fail.
Britain maintains full EU voting rights until it leaves the bloc and is expected at diplomatic meetings as the proposals are discussed and slowly implemented. Britain's exit negotiations are expected to take two years, starting from early 2017.
"We expect Britain to abstain when it comes to a vote on the issue of increased European defense cooperation," said Rainer Arnold, parliamentary defense spokesman for Germany's Social Democrats, the junior partner in government.
"They can't prevent anything from happening in the long run, so it would make sense if they stayed out of it," he said.
ALLIES IN THE EAST
Majority voting means Britain alone cannot derail all EU plans, but Germany and France want all 28 leaders to back the plans at a summit in December in Brussels, or at least have Britain acquiesce.
German politicians including German Chancellor Angela Merkel may try to persuade British Prime Minister Theresa May to let the proposals go ahead, German lawmaker Arnold said.
"The Brits usually block all the major defense initiatives and we would still have to negotiate this as 28. Who knows if they'd let it through as part of their negotiating tactics," said one EU diplomat involved in defense cooperation discussions.
London has allies in the eastern European countries that also worry about undermining NATO, particularly after the U.S-led alliance has committed to sending troops to Poland and the Baltic states to deter what they see as a hostile Russia.
Britain also believes military matters are central to national sovereignty. Germany and France, facing rising threats and smaller defense budgets, are more open, saying no European nation has the resources alone to confront failing states on Europe's borders, Islamist militants or a resurgent Russia.
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Richard Balmforth)
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