By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Conflicting signals from Britain over a planned military command center the European Union wants to set up to run its foreign training missions have annoyed France and Germany in the countdown to the start of Brexit negotiations in June.
The putative command center in Brussels is part of a broader Franco-German plan to build closer EU defense ties, save Europeans taxpayers’ money and deter threats from Russia and Islamist militants.
Britain, one of the EU’s two major military powers along with France, reluctantly agreed to the new command center in March on condition that it not be called a military headquarters. Britain’s defense minister Michael Fallon said he feared an EU army would drain resources from NATO.
However, French, German and other EU diplomats said the final technical talks had now stalled because Britain, which remains a full-fledged EU member until it leaves the bloc in 2019, was opposing the plans.
EU diplomats said they believed the issue had been complicated by campaigning for Britain’s June 8 parliamentary election, which has been dominated by the country’s plans to leave the EU.
“It is unfortunate that essential European security and defense projects have become hostage to domestic political moves,” said one EU diplomat.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson dismissed suggestions that London was blocking the EU command center, saying it was only a matter of finetuning the legal language “to make sure that we get it totally right”.
“We understand the vital importance of us all as European countries working together to strengthen our defense,” Johnson said as he arrived for a meeting of EU foreign ministers.
“If they want to come together … with other arrangements then you know we are not going to stand in their way.”
However, a draft statement originally to be approved by all 28 EU foreign ministers on Monday was changed by diplomats at the last minute to reflect the impasse and left open the establishment of the command center.
The renewed tensions came after Britain in April blocked billions of euros (dollars) of EU spending linked to separate youth employment initiatives, student exchanges and scientific research. Britain cited a protocol that bars the allocation of any resources that might be construed as affecting its election.
Some in Brussels see the tensions as a bad omen for two years of Brexit talks.
“If this issue is be delayed until after the British elections in June and then approved, well OK,” said a second EU diplomat. “If Britain broadens its resistance against EU ambitions on defense and security then we have a problem.”
Britain’s Fallon has regularly warned against initiatives that could lead to the creation of an EU army, which he says would be a threat to national sovereignty and a waste of money for the 22 EU member states that are also in NATO.
France, Germany and Italy counter that there are no plans for EU soldiers wearing the same uniform and that the current overlapping and uncoordinated military plans of European nations are a bigger waste of taxpayer funds.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Gareth Jones)