Britain's Defence Secretary Michael Fallon speaks during a press conference at the British embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, September. 21, 2016. REUTERS/Hadi Mizban/Pool(reuters_tickers)
By Robin Emmott and Sabine Siebold
BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - France and Germany made the case for the European Union's most ambitious defence plan in almost two decades on Tuesday, aiming to persuade sceptical eastern members and avoid a showdown with Britain over its military future outside the bloc.
In a concert hall in Bratislava, EU defence ministers including Britain's Michael Fallon discussed the Franco-German proposals for the first time, searching for a coherent strategy that their leaders can formally back at a summit in December.
The proposals include increasing spending on military missions, jointly developing assets such as helicopters and drones, expanding peacekeeping abroad and building stronger defences against state-sponsored hackers in cyberspace.
Britain, which retains full voting rights until it leaves the European Union, is adamant the plans must not weaken NATO and has some support from wary Poland and the Baltic nations.
"We are going to continue to oppose any idea of an EU army or EU army headquarters," Fallon told reporters as he arrived for the meeting. "We agree Europe needs to do more ... but simply duplicating or undermining NATO is the wrong way to do it," he said.
Standing together on arrival, Germany's Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen and her French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian were at pains to stress there were no plans for army of European soldiers wearing the same uniforms.
"On the contrary," von der Leyen said. "It is about bundling the various strengths of European countries to be ready to act together quickly."
She cited how Europe had struggled to coordinate support during the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. In 2011, the British and French air campaign in Libya also showed Europe's limits, as the operation quickly became reliant on the United States for refuelling planes, logistics and military know-how.
Building on stop-start initiatives dating back to the late 1990s, the plans could strengthen the bloc's ability to respond without the help of the United States to challenges on its borders, such as failing states or a more aggressive Russia.
European military spending is a fraction of the United States' and only a handful of countries, including Britain, Estonia and Greece, spend generously on defence.
France is a major European military and Germany has many military assets but has traditionally been cautious given its history in the 20th century's two world wars.
In the wake of Britain's referendum to quit the bloc, the EU defence proposals have a political impetus too and are seen as the most tangible way for the remaining 27 governments to pull together, although the EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said there was "nothing ideological" about the plans.
Britain has blocked such plans for years, fearing a European army run from Brussels. France, which along with Britain is Europe's main military power, now sees an opportunity to show leadership without London in the way.
But the political momentum could still stall.
Britain has vowed to defend its military interests for as long as it remains in the European Union, fearful that the bloc's ambitions could suck financial resources away from NATO, where allies have spent years cutting budgets.
Most EU countries including Germany and France are members of the U.S.-led alliance and contribute to EU and NATO rapid reaction forces.
The diplomacy in European capitals over the coming months will be about showing London that stronger EU defences are in NATO's interest, according to Urmas Paet, a former Estonian foreign minister and now a lawmaker in the European Parliament.
The EU also needs Britain, one of the few European nations able to lead large military missions, as a partner.
"NATO wants adequate support and Britain sees some aspects of the EU's ambitions that are useful, say on terrorism and cyber security," Paet said. "We just need to avoid duplication."
(Additional reporting by Tatiana Jancarikova; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)