By Robin Emmott and Jean-Baptiste Vey
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders launched their the most ambitious defense plan for decades on Thursday, agreeing a multi-billion-euro weapons fund, shared financing for battlegroups and allowing a coalition of the willing to conduct more missions abroad.
It comes as tensions with Moscow and an inward turn in Washington have pushed Europe's governments to confront years of division over military cooperation.
New French President Emmanuel Macron, who threw his weight behind a common European defense during his election campaign, called the steps "historic" and said leaders were meeting Europe's security challenges.
"The conclusions that were adopted a few moments ago in defense are up to the job. We must consider the historic nature of this," Macron told a news conference during an EU summit.
Modest by U.S. standards, the measures could nevertheless revitalize Europe's inefficient defense industry, allow the EU to send more peacekeepers to flashpoints and send a message to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump that the bloc wants to pay for its own security.
Although the leaders' statement did not detail the size of the defense fund, the European Commission has said it would put forward at least 1.5 billion euros ($1.69 billion) a year from the bloc's budget for the research and purchase of assets.
It is expected to help develop and pay for helicopters, drones and an array of weaponry.
The fund could generate some 5.5 billion euros a year after 2020 if enough governments come forward with funds, EU officials said, stressing that national governments would remain the owners of all equipment.
Nearly two decades after France and Britain, the EU's main military powers, helped form a common European foreign policy, 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.
While the threats have increased, defense research spending in the EU has fallen by a third, or more than 20 billion euros, since 2006.
Britain has long-blocked more ambitious steps, fearing the creation of an EU army. But with its decision to leave the European Union, Germany is emerging as France's biggest partner and both want to see reforms across the bloc's defense industry, which many EU officials say wastes money.
While the European Union spends about half as much as the United States on researching and manufacturing tanks, ships, planes and weapons, it only has about 15 percent of the assets that Washington can deploy on the battle field.
Trump's repeated criticism of NATO allies, 22 of whom are EU members, for being too reliant on the United States' military, has also unnerved European leaders, who say they must do more together and see defense as a unifying force after Brexit.
"Europe should be doing more for its own security," Poland's Prime Minister Beata Szydlo told reporters. "It's time to make fighting against terrorism efficient," she said.
France and Germany must still agree on how they want the European Union to be more agile in overseas missions and how to pay for them. While the bloc has 15 military and training missions abroad, it does not match its economic might with the same military reach.
Leaders in Brussels gave their governments three months to say whether they would be willing to join a coalition of EU members to launch missions in the future and under what terms.
"We have set ourselves an ambitious timeline. Three months is not a long time," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters. "This is a real added value, because it allows us to conduct missions ... we will see who joins this structure," she said, giving Africa as a place for more EU operations.
(Additional reporting by Noah Barkin and Gabriela Baczynska Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)