By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - To critics who say the EU's new defence pact is little more than an alphabet soup of extra bureaucracy for Brussels, EU officials have their riposte: give us time before you judge us.
European Union leaders will on Thursday bless the biggest step in EU defence integration in more than two decades, a pact dubbed by France and Germany as historic to help match the bloc's economic and trade prowess with a more powerful military.
"It is a historic step," said Jorge Domecq, the chief executive of the European Defence Agency, which helps EU governments develop their military capabilities.
"It is not a quick fix. It requires a higher level of ambition, it requires time," he told Reuters in an interview, saying a five-to-10 year period would allow for real progress.
Long blocked by London, the pact, called Permanent Structured Cooperation or PESCO, is one of the most tangible steps in EU integration since Britons voted to leave the bloc, as militaries begin to plan, spend and deploy together.
Paris and Berlin say it will answer U.S. President Donald Trump's call for Europe to pay more for its own defence.
To outsiders, the branding is bizarre: Germany, which already shares its tanks with the Netherlands, and nuclear-armed France, which stands to be the EU's top military power after Britain departs, are the architects of PESCO.
Twenty five EU governments - all but Britain, Denmark and Malta - have committed to offer their money and expertise to PESCO, as well as a willingness to intervene abroad.
"A group of 25 member states have decided on more binding commitments in defence, and for the longer term. That's why this is called 'permanent'," said Domecq, a long-serving Spanish diplomat who took over the EDA in 2015 at a time when Britain regularly blocked budget increases for the agency.
Britain, still a member of the EDA until it leaves the EU, is no longer blocking the agency's budget increases, a sign officials see as London's possible future involvement in individual PESCO projects, although not as a member of the club.
With competing industries, duplicative weapons programmes and EU "battlegroups" that have never been used, European defence policy was in a sorry state after the global financial crisis, which hit defence budgets, officials say.
Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said in 2015 that "a bunch of chickens would be a more unified combat unit" than the common European defence policy.
"WE CANNOT EXCLUDE ANYONE"
With more than a dozen projects already agreed by EU foreign ministers - from a European medical command to a crisis response centre - the PESCO format is likely to have its first formal session early next year, Domecq said.
Some experts say the club has become too big to be effective and will be held back by the internal workings of the consensus-based EU. Nick Witney, a former EDA chief, said last month the main result of PESCO would be "lots more bureaucracy."
France's vision for an avant-garde of willing countries clashed with that of Germany, which said all EU governments should take part, with the exception of Britain, which is leaving, and Denmark, which has opted out of EU defence.
Even now, countries such as Sweden worry the club could push out smaller defence industries. Poland is concerned about duplication with NATO, which has its own defence planning.
The set-up is also complex: PESCO will join an annual defence review and a government defence fund with European Commission money. Those and other steps that have generated a capital-letter-laden alphabet soup of acronyms for procedures.
But Domecq, who worked at NATO in the late 1990s, said the pact still had legitimacy because EU surveys showed most Europeans wanted the bloc to provide more security following Russia's 2014 seizure of Crimea, militant attacks on European cities and state-sponsored computer hackers.
All weapons developed in PESCO will be owned by individual EU countries and the 22 EU countries which are also members of U.S.-led NATO can deploy them with the alliance, Domecq said.
"The security environment has become a wake-up call for citizens across Europe," he said. "We cannot exclude anyone."
(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Richard Balmforth)