PRAGUE – European Union leaders urged the EU on Friday to lift its defense spending for its own sake, not because of pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump or Britain's looming departure from the bloc.
Trump has demanded that NATO's 22 EU members hike spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product on military budgets.
The European Commission has launched debate on what direction EU defense cooperation should take once Britain leaves in 2019.
In a speech during a conference on EU security and defense in Prague on Friday, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the way ahead "starts with making sure we spend what is needed on our defense."
He said the EU needs to "invest more, and invest in a more efficient way."
EU member states are spending an average of 1.3 percent of GDP on defense, much less than the United States, Russia and China, Juncker said.
Many defense projects are done on national level with no coordination, he added. As a result, "there some 170 different weapon systems in the EU, compared to 30 in the United States."
"It's no longer a question of national sovereignty," Juncker said. "It's a question of European sovereignty."
The EU unveiled a new defense fund on Wednesday provide a total of 500 million euros ($563 million) in EU money in 2019 and 2020 to help buy and develop military equipment.
This would double to 1 billion euros annually from 2020.
Besides increasing its defense, Juncker said NATO remains crucial for the EU's security.
"NATO has been and will remain a cornerstone of European security," he said. "We're different but have to complement each other in so many ways."
"No NATO is not an option for the European Union. It would be a disaster for the European Union. We have to stick together," Juncker added.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told the conference that "this is the time now to get things done."
"Let me be very open about this," Mogherini said. "If we're heading toward European security and defense, it is not because U.K .is leaving the European Union ... or because of shifts across the Atlantic. We're doing this because we need it, and we want it."
Both Mogherini and Juncker said security and defense are among top priorities of citizens in all EU countries.
"There's one thing that European citizens say clear and loud. They want more European Union in defense and security," Mogherini said.