BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO called on European Union leaders Thursday to improve their cooperation on defense in the face of dwindling military budgets or face American disengagement from Europe.
British Prime Minister David Cameron came straight from World War I battlefields in western Belgium to tell a summit of the bloc's 28 leaders to stand together to meet new defense challenges, even as he rejected pooling defense resources under a common EU flag.
At the same time, French President Francois Hollande used his country's military actions in the Central African Republic to underscore the need for common funding to back up the costly military operations of a single member state. He said he will ask European leaders on Friday to designate the intervention in Central Africa an EU operation, which would allow the use of EU money to pay for some of it.
Hollande's request is likely to meet with resistance from some of his European partners. "If you ask for European solidarity, the decision-making should be inside European structures," said Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
Though some EU countries have provided air transport, none has joined France so far in putting boots on the ground. Hollande said Poland is willing to deploy a military transport and 50 air force personnel to the Central African Republic for three months, but that a single country's presence isn't enough to make it an EU operation.
Earlier, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the EU leaders to move swiftly to do more for their nations' defense or risk seeing a weakening in Europe's military relationship with the United States, which dates back nearly a century to World War I.
"Unless we Europeans take our security seriously, North Americans will rightly ask why they should," Rasmussen said. "Unless we recommit to our own defense, we risk seeing America disengage — and Europe and America drift apart."
For decades, NATO member states have paid lip service to joint projects and closer cooperation of their defense industries. But in the high-technology, high-investment age of drone incursions and cyber warfare, the EU still struggles to find synergies between its member states.
"We allow ourselves the luxury of maintaining 16 large shipyards which build warships — the USA has two," EU parliament President Martin Schulz told the leaders during the opening session of their two-day summit.
"We have 19 different types of armored personnel carrier and 14 types of battle tanks — the USA has one of each," Schulz said. Hollande acknowledged that it was a key point the EU needed to address. "Today we want to have a certain number of results, especially on the defense industry, which has to increase its cooperation on equipment," he said.
The summit concluded that military cooperation should be improved, including support for the development of drones within the next decade. Britain, ever wary when it comes to closer EU integration, sought to draw a line on how far European military cooperation should go.
Cooperation, yes, said Cameron, but "it is not right for the EU to have capabilities, armies, air forces and the rest of it and we need to get that demarcation correct." Failing to get that balance right has cost the EU in duplication even as defense budgets are suffering from the continent's economic crisis.
"In 2001, EU member states were still spending 251 billion euros ($343 billion) on defense, whereas in 2012, the corresponding figure was 190 billion euros ($260 billion)," Schulz told the EU leaders.
"In many cases, we would be quite incapable of carrying out a military operation without the support of the United States," Schulz added.
AP correspondent John-Thor Dahlburg contributed to this story.
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