French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, center left, speaks with German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, center right, during a meeting of EU foreign and defense ministers at the Europa building in Brussels, Nov 13, 2017. (VIRGINIA MAYO / AP)
BRUSSELS/LONDON — European Union countries on Monday officially launched a new era in defense cooperation with a program of joint military investment and project development aimed at helping the EU confront its security challenges.
Twenty-three of the EU's 28 member nations signed up to the process, known as permanent structured cooperation, or PESCO. Britain, which is leaving the EU in 2019, and Denmark with a defense opt-out were among those not taking part.
Countries have already submitted more than 50 joint projects in the fields of defense capabilities and military operations. Britain can take part in some if they are of benefit to the entire EU.
Federica Mogherini, Foreign policy chief, EU
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini described it as a "historic moment in European defense," and added that "23 member states engaging booth on capabilities and on operational steps is something big." Those who didn't sign up can join later.
Mogherini said countries have already submitted more than 50 joint projects in the fields of defense capabilities and military operations. Britain can take part in some if they are of benefit to the entire EU.
She said PESCO, backed by the EU defense fund, "will enable member states to use the economy of scale of Europe and in this manner to fulfil the gap of output that we have."
Their signatures are a sign of political will but the program will only enter force once it's been legally endorsed, probably in December.
German Foreign Minister Gabriel lauded the agreement as "a great step toward self-sufficiency and strengthening the European Union's security and defense policy — really a milestone in European development."
Under the cooperation, member countries will submit an action plan outlining their defense aims. Mogherini, EU military chiefs and the European Defence Agency will then evaluate whether the plans are being respected.
Those not living up to their commitments could be kicked out of the group.
EU officials insist this is not just bureaucratic cooperation, but real investment that will help develop Europe's defense industry and spur research and development in military capabilities that the bloc needs most.
Mogherini said the move would complement NATO's security aims. The EU, she said, has tools to fight hybrid warfare — the use of conventional weapons mixed with things like propaganda and cyber-attacks — that the military alliance does not have at its disposal.
Demonstrators fly a Union flag (top), and an EU flag outside of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, central London on Oct 12, 2017. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)
The EU can also bring its political and financial weight to bear on security challenges, such as the use of development aid in Africa, where NATO has no real foothold.
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Under PESCO, EU countries will commit to increase military spending, but not to specifically adhere to NATO's bottom line of moving towards 2 percent of gross domestic product for defense budgets by 2020. By working together on joint projects, nations will be able to use their combined spending weight to purchase much needed capabilities like air transport or drones.
"The real problem is not how much we spend, it is the fact that we spend in a fragmented manner," Mogherini said.
Gabriel said working together is "more economical than if everyone does the same. I think that European cooperation on defense questions will rather contribute to saving money — we have about 50 percent of the United States' defense spending in Europe, but only 15 percent of the efficiency."
European Parliament president Antonio Tajani visits the Bardo museum in Tunis, Oct 30, 2017. (HASSENE DRIDI / AP)
May asked to speed up Brexit talks
Business leaders from both sides of the English Channel urged Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday to accelerate talks on Britain's exit from the European Union as uncertainty about future trade relations threatens jobs and investment.
European business leaders are urging Britain to make concrete proposals on the so-called divorce issues so the negotiations can move forward. The EU has refused to discuss trade until there is agreement on Britain's financial obligations, citizens' rights and the Irish border.
READ MORE: EU eyes tough Brexit transition terms
Industry groups from Germany, France, Britain and other EU countries deployed representatives to London amid concern that time is running out to ensure more than 550 billion pounds (US$719 billion) of trade keeps flowing smoothly after the U.K. leaves the bloc in March 2019. They want a transitional period during which Britain would remain in the European single market and customs union so companies could adjust to the new relationship after Brexit.
"Business is extremely concerned with the slow pace of negotiations and the lack of progress," said Emma Marcegaglia, president of BusinessEurope, an umbrella organization of business lobbies. "Business aims to avoid a cliff edge and therefore asks for a "status quo - like" transitional arrangement with the UK staying in the customs union and the single market as this will best provide citizens and businesses with greater certainty."