By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - France, Germany, Italy and Spain have joined forces to plead for a common European defense policy, seeking to keep up momentum on a project Paris and Berlin hope can forge unity following Britain's vote to quit the bloc.
In a joint letter seen by Reuters on Wednesday, the defense ministers of the four countries wrote to their counterparts, including Britain, to set out how the 27 remaining governments would share assets and deepen cooperation in EU missions.
"To be clear: an 'EU army' is not our objective," said the letter, which has been sent to European capitals this week, choosing language that seeks to assuage concerns in Britain that the European Union is planning a rival to NATO.
France and Germany, as well as Italy, have already set out their ideas on how the EU could match its economic and global trading prowess with a more far-reaching military presence to give its foreign policy more clout.
Diplomats said this week's letter was aimed at persuading skeptical eastern and northern European countries who worry about undermining NATO, as well as underlining the context in which the plans are emerging.
Britain's pending departure robs the bloc of its biggest-spending military force and puts the onus on France, which has significant but stretched armed forces, to lead the broader response to crises on Europe's borders.
Germany's sizeable military assets and Italy's know-how, from conflicts in Libya and Afghanistan, make them partners. But Berlin has traditionally been cautious given its role in the 20th century's two world wars, while Rome has sharply cut defense spending since the euro zone debt crisis.
"Given the current and foreseeable security environment, the EU will most probably have to launch missions of a military and/or civilian character in regions where NATO does not consider taking action," the letter said.
"The level of ambition should enable the EU to respond to external crises," it said, stressing the need to act "autonomously" without the guiding hand of the United States.
Proposals include increasing European spending on military missions, jointly developing assets such as helicopters and drones, expanding peacekeeping abroad and building stronger defenses against state-sponsored hackers in cyberspace.
NATO, and especially the United States, feels it cannot be relied on to solve all security issues and wants to see Europeans increase defense spending and strengthen their militaries.
"This shouldn't be a competition. We'll do it together. A strong Europe is good for NATO," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Germany on Monday.
After a first discussion last month in Bratislava, EU defense ministers will hold talks on the defense plans in Brussels in November, before presenting a more detailed strategy to EU leaders at a summit in December.
(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Berlin; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)