by Rahul Venkit
BRUSSELS, Dec. 20 (Xinhua) -- European Union (EU) leaders on Friday called for further development of the 28-member bloc's military capabilities despite acknowledging their budget constraints.
In the first EU summit for five years to examine defence policies, the green light was given to military projects such as remotely piloted aircraft systems, or drones, to be realized by 2020 to 2025, air-to-air refueling, satellite communications and cyber defence.
In a joint statement, the Council also emphasized "the need to improve EU rapid response capabilities", including "EU battle groups" that could be deployed to conflict zones and tackle issues such as illegal migration, organized crime and terrorism.
"A stronger common security and defence policy is not a luxury. It is in today's world a necessity. It is also a pre-condition for a successful foreign and security policy," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told the summit.
However, the leaders acknowledged that defence budgets in Europe were dwindling, thereby "limiting the ability to develop, deploy and sustain military capabilities."
European Parliament President Martin Schulz pointed that while EU member states were spending 251 billion euros (343 billion U.S. dollars) on defence in 2001, the corresponding figure was 190 billion euros in 2012.
"In many cases we would be quite incapable of carrying out a military operation without the support of the U.S.," he added.
As a means to counter the constraints of national defence budgets, an adopted conclusion promoted the pooling and sharing of military resources.
This would involve "a systematic and long-term approach to cooperation through increased transparency and information-sharing in defence planning," according to Claude-France Arnould, chief executive of the European Defence Agency.
She added that a policy framework to this effect would be proposed by the end of 2014 as mandated by the European Council.
With an estimated one and a half million jobs and turnover of 96 billion euros, there was a call to increase coordination within the European defence industry -- an important pillar of the bloc's economy.
Member states agreed to offer small and medium-sized firms from across Europe greater access to defence contracts. Currently, only a quarter of countries award projects via a bid for tenders, claiming exemptions in the name of national security, Schulz said.
At the summit, the European leaders also reiterated the bloc's common security and defence policy would "continue to develop in full complementarity with NATO".
While France's request for EU funding for future military interventions, such as its current operation in the Central African Republic, was not mentioned in the conclusion, Barroso did announce support of 50 million euros to the African-led military mission.
Experts said the United States' ongoing military focus away from Europe towards Asia-Pacific prompted Europe to put defence higher up on its agenda.
"The combination of the Arab spring, the U.S. 'pivot' to Asia, and their own deep defence cuts encourage EU governments to cooperate more closely on defence matters," Daniel Keohane, head of strategic affairs at think tank FRIDE, wrote in the Security and Defence Agenda.