By STEVEN ERLANGER -NYTimes.com
In late April 2003, just after the rapid fall of Baghdad, four of the founding countries of what is now the European Union met to announce the formation of a European operational military command headquarters just down the road from NATO.
France and Germany, which had fiercely opposed the war against Saddam Hussein, led by the United States and Britain, joined with Belgium and Luxembourg in what the American State Department sniffily dismissed as “the chocolate summit.”
The Americans were outraged that the French-German “couple,” having noisily opted out of the war in Iraq, had then dared to propose a European defense command separate from NATO. But Europe, the French and the Germans argued, needed its own defense capacity, so it could not be dragged into America’s wars.
In the end, because of American and British opposition, the project went nowhere, like so many other grand European ideas.
But now — after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have both turned long, bloody and hollow, and after Britain voted to leave the European Union — the idea of a European military headquarters is back.
For a European Union shaken by the British exit, cooperation on security, a major concern of voters on the Continent, was an obvious focus of last week’s summit meeting in Bratislava, the Slovak capital. The meeting was the first to exclude a British leader in more than 40 years.
Without Britain there to veto, France and Germany won approval for a joint European military headquarters. “It was a way in Bratislava to signal that we could move ahead post-Brexit, that the E.U. is alive and kicking,” said Camille Grand, director of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research and soon to become NATO’s assistant secretary general. “Security is one thing on which E.U. leaders can all agree, and this works reasonably well with our public, to see the E.U. trying to deal with problems without spending billions.”
The proposed joint military headquarters, Mr. Grand said, was “a small step, but it would give the E.U. some institutional visibility and the ability to command a small-scale operation on its own.”
This time, the United States seems quietly supportive. The atmosphere in 2003 was fraught and conflictual, with allies deeply divided. “Those were very different times and a very different American administration,” said Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian ambassador to NATO. Now the Americans just seem desperate to get European allies to meet the Atlantic alliance’s military spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product.
President Obama has pushed Europe hard to increase its defense capabilities, essentially saying, Mr. Stefanini said, “Do it any way you want — do it as the European Union, as NATO, or as nations, but just do it.”
The headquarters does not imply a European army and represents little competition to the Atlantic alliance, which retains large planning, intelligence and operational facilities. Britain and France, reluctantly, understood that they needed those capabilities when they led even the short intervention in Libya.
But in circumstances where there is no obvious “lead nation,” the headquarters would provide the European Union a military planning and operational capacity it lacks, even for small missions, like securing the airport in Mali in January 2013, said Rem Korteweg, a defense analyst for the London-based Center for European Reform. “The E.U. normally wants to deploy in coordination with diplomacy and development aid,” he said, “and now can’t pull it all together.”
The headquarters would allow faster deployment, Mr. Korteweg added, “so you could slow the escalation of a nearby conflict and thus slow the momentum for migration.”
Britain, which has one of the most powerful militaries in Europe, rivaled only by that of France, vows after withdrawal from the European Union to play its full role in NATO, to which most European Union nations also belong. But the loss of Britain from the bloc can only mean a weaker distinct European Union defense.
And a new headquarters, of course, “won’t solve the E.U.’s big problems,” Mr. Korteweg said, citing the usual dire list of weak economic growth, eurozone debt, uncontrolled migration and Russia. “But,” he added, “looking at what the E.U. wants to achieve post-Brexit, this is a first step, and there will be others.”