Lady Ashton, the EU foreign minister, has signalled to Paris she will go against British opposition if France can win other allies this winter, a senior French defence ministry source has told the Daily Telegraph.
Her support comes ahead of a meeting of foreign and defence ministers of the so-called “big five” group of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland in Paris next Wednesday to discuss driving “European defence” forward.
The French effectively view the launch of new EU military missions as a Trojan horse for a European military headquarters and France will mount a major offensive in mid-2014 that could see it back treaty change to scrap national vetoes over defence.
Britain last year blocked moves to create an EU military operations HQ (OHQ), with William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, threatening to veto the plan over concerns that it would rival Nato command.
This sparked the “big five” to seek ways of bypassing a British veto via a little-known legal mechanism. France eventually backed down so as not to jeopardise the Lancaster House bilateral defence accord between Britain and France – to the “chagrin” of its main EU partners.
Now, France will seek to use EU military missions – such as one in Mali it hopes will be launched in January – to build an OHQ.
“The European project has often been limited to paper and documents. We prefer to do concrete things and, bolstered by these first results, we can then formalise a European security concept and an OHQ. There will be political will for (military) operations, and for that we will need institutions,” said the source.
The source added that a new EU antipiracy mission to bolster security in the Horn of Africa is today coordinated by the British operations centre in Northwood but will be taken “in the longer term by the OHQ”.
“We remain convinced if it wants to take on a new dimension at some stage in its external action, the EU will have to create (a permanent HQ). But we no longer consider it a starting condition as we known this is doomed to failure,” the source said.
“If you have three or four military operations under way it suggests there is an operational need for it. The defence minister believes that at one stage the idea of the OHQ will fall like a ripe fruit.”
Baroness Ashton backs this approach, the French source said.
“We received a very favourable response from Madame Ashton. Lots of people say she isn’t interested in France’s position. What she told us is that she’s not in a position to take the initiative, which I understand,” the source added.
“Ashton doesn’t consider herself legitimate to push European defence as high representative but that if there was a political initiative that mobilised several states, she would be delighted to relay that.”
Geoffrey Van Orden MEP, the Conservative spokesman on European defence and security policy, warned France was pushing Britain down a “slippery slope” to a European army.
“France has long been the main driving force for the creation of a defence structure separate from Nato. It is naive for us to imagine that we can have an intense bilateral defence relationship with France without being drawn increasingly into that country’s wider ambition to create EU military capabilities,” he said.
A spokesman for Lady Ashton said: “Conduct and planning are of crucial importance to any deployment whether this be of a civilian or military nature. This matter requires unanimous consent of all Member States.”
In September, foreign ministers from 11 EU states including France and Germany called for an end to Britain’s veto over defence policy in a radical blueprint for the “future of Europe” that “could eventually involve a European army”.
The French defence source said that the ministers’ proposals should be viewed as “food for thought” and a “long-term” goal. “Scrapping the right to a national veto means limiting sovereignty of each state. Are we prepared to limit our capacity to block or commit to measures by giving way to a collective bigger than any one state?,” said the source. “The answer is yes for 11 countries, but the consensus must be found among 27 and we are a long way from that.”