By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - On the same day that Europe's defense ministers rallied behind France's call for military help following the Islamist attacks in Paris, Britain refused to back a tiny increase of 3 million euros ($3.29 million) in the EU's collective defense budget.
Barely noticed as France invoked the EU's mutual assistance clause for the first time on Nov. 17, Britain's resistance to raising the European Defence Agency's budget for a fifth year running underscored how EU defense collaboration continues to unravel just when it is needed most, officials and experts say.
Nearly two decades after France and Britain, the EU's main military powers, launched plans for a common European Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), the continent faces a growing range of security threats, from Islamic State militants to a more assertive, hostile Russia that has seized territory in Ukraine.
Yet the challenges - which also include the arrival on European shores of about a million migrants in 2015 alone fleeing wars and poverty - have failed to reinvigorate the push for greater EU defense cooperation.
"If I look at the common European defense policy, a bunch of chickens would be a more unified combat unit in contrast," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said when asked about EU defense during a visit to Germany in October.
France's surprise invocation of article 42.7 of the European Union's Lisbon Treaty requiring solidarity from other member states following the killing of 130 people in Paris on Nov. 13 by Islamic State militants proved a largely symbolic gesture that did not involve EU defense institutions or missions.
The reasons for the steady waning of EU defense hopes are many: deep-rooted British scepticism about European integration; the impact of global financial crisis and the woes of the euro zone on national budgets; public trauma over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and the rise of anti-EU parties across Europe.
Added to that mix now is the risk of "Brexit". Britain's increasingly eurosceptic Conservative government has promised an in/out referendum by the end of 2017 after renegotiating the terms of the country's membership.
"British Prime Minister David Cameron does not want to give any impression of joining a euro-army ahead of the referendum on Britain's EU membership," said Daniel Koehane at the Centre for Security Studies in Zurich.
That helps explain why Britain blocked an increase to the European Defence Agency's 2016 budget, which needs unanimity, keeping it at 30.5 million euros and marking a 15 percent fall in real terms since 2010. However, several EU countries may increase their own contributions to the agency unilaterally.
British scepticism - the flip side of its commitment to the U.S.-led NATO alliance - has long hampered EU defense plans, although it was then-prime minister Tony Blair who helped launch the CSDP with France's Jacques Chirac in 1998.
The aim was to complement NATO by building up capacity in Europe, long heavily reliant for its defense on the United States, which accounts for 70 percent of all NATO spending.
In the early years the Anglo-French initiative made headway, prompting the creation of a European Defence Agency that coordinates military training and the development of equipment.
Rapidly deployable forces known as 'EU Battlegroups' were set up, as well as new ministerial and military structures for decision-making on issues such as economic sanctions and deploying EU peacekeepers internationally.
But the momentum soon stalled. EU Battlegroups, operational since 2007, have yet to be used. No big new European military projects are underway aside from collaboration on drones.
Governments work in isolation. The EU's special adviser on defense, Michel Barnier, cites seven separate national frigate programs and 23 different systems of light armored vehicles.
Defence spending was a casualty of the 2008/2009 global financial crisis and continued to fall among NATO countries in real terms in 2015 despite last year's pledge to increase spending to 2 percent of economic output by 2024. A majority of EU states are also in the NATO alliance.
The Ukraine crisis has helped halt the budget cuts. Six of the 28 NATO allies increased spending in 2014 and IHS Jane's estimates that over 2015-2019 $50 billion will be added to Western Europe's defense expenditure, mainly in France, Germany and Britain.
But apart from the United States only four NATO allies - all EU members - currently hit the 2 percent target: Britain, Poland, Greece and Estonia.
The EU is involved in 17 peacekeeping and training missions in Africa and the Middle East and has advisory teams in Ukraine, but given the bloc's economic might and the scale of its security challenges such achievements seem to many frustratingly modest.
"I do not understand why national interests continue to undermine our European security," Dutch Defence Minister Jeanine Hennes told a recent conference. "We have to protect our sovereignty through military means by cooperating."
There is still collaboration at the European Defence Agency on air-to-air refueling, cyber defense, anti-tank weapons, medical evacuation programs, governmental satellite communication and remotely piloted aircraft systems, or drones.
Italy, France and Germany hope to have a European drone by 2025 to reduce reliance on U.S. and Israeli technology.
But nothing will change substantially without a political commitment to defense, officials and experts say.
"If Britain votes to stay in the EU, that may improve things," said Nick Witney, a former European Defence Agency chief now at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
"We need a change in the political winds."
(Additional reporting by Tom Korkemeier; Editing by Gareth Jones)