Brussels has moved even closer to an EU Army after 23 state signed off on a key military agreement – a move a high-ranking eurocrat hailed as a “historic day”.
The campaign for a European defence union stretches back to the 1950s, although the movement has stuttered in the decades since.
But EU officials are now celebrating as progress accelerates with the support of Brussels chiefs Jean-Claude Juncker, Guy Verhofstadt and Michel Barnier.
One unnamed official quoted by Reuters news agency said today: “We’ve never come this far before. We are in a new situation.”
EU foreign and defence ministers signed the new pact at around 10.30am GMT. EU leaders will then officially back it next month to make it EU law.
Federica Mogherini emphasised the importance of today’s agreement this morning.
The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security said: “It’s going to be quite a historic day today for European defence.”
It is just the latest step in the march towards an all-out EU army, with a military headquarters already approved and proposals to purchase military equipment being considered.
Long blocked by Britain, which feared the creation of an EU army, defence integration was revived by France and Germany after last June’s Brexit vote.
It follows years of spending cuts that have left European military forces short of vital assets.
Already the majority of EU members do not meet Nato’s defence spending target of 2 per cent, with only Poland, Greece and Estonia budgeting for the amount.
Britain, and the US are the other two nations meeting the target.
The UK is not part of the initiative but British officials have been pressing for third country involvement. Britain may be able to join in but only on an exceptional basis if it provides substantial funds and expertise.
Speaking before the pact signing, Ms Mogherini praised the proposed European defence union.
She said: “After so many years, finally the provision of the Lisbon Treaty establishing the possibility for EU member states to have a Permeant Structured Cooperation on Defence, today it’s going to be initiated.”
“Member states have presented already more than 50 concrete projects both in the field of capabilities and in the field of operations.
“Today we will definitely launch a new page for European defence and I think this will be the news of the day.”
Responding to a question about why an EU Army is needed if NATO already exists, Ms Mogherini said the proposed new defence union offered more flexibility.
She said: “Think of Africa, think of security in Africa. The European Union is more present there than NATO when it comes to training of security forces, when it comes to the delicate link between development and security.
“We are better equipped to act in areas where there is not a purely military action that is needed, but we can also develop more our military capabilities to act to reinforce our strategic autonomy.”
The European Commission later welcomed the decision and release the states who signed the pact.
A statement said: “The Commission strongly welcomes the move by Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden towards launching Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) on defence, by signing today a joint notification and handing it over to High Representative Federica Mogherini.
The proposals have infuriated British armed force veterans, who say reliance on a joint military would undermine the Brexit vote.
David Banks of Veterans for Britain told Express.co.uk on Friday: “This simply hollows out the powers of the UK government and parliament.
“It would keep us locked in to not being an independent military state. We would have the trappings of independence.”