In Lithuania, von der Leyen backs EU 'defense union'

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen says an EU force will help the European Union defend itself from external threats. She is in Lithuania to announce German's army deployment as a deterrent to Russia.

"It's time to move forward to a European defense union, which is basically a Schengen of defense," Ursula von der Leyen (right in photo) told reporters in Lithuania's capital, Vilnius. "When we have threats that are surrounding us, we all know no country on its own will be able to manage that," Germany's defense minister said. "But we together, we Europeans, we are very strong if we improve our capabilities as Europeans."

Von der Leyen said such a force would be "added value" for NATO, which needs a strong pillar in Europe.

The defense minister said German soldiers would help Lithuania with air defense beginning early next year. In July, NATO leaders agreed to move 3,000-4,000 troops to Poland and the Baltic states - Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia - after the countries complained of vulnerability following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

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"There will be a comprehensive air defense," von der Leyen said. "We are very glad to find many European friends who want to join, like the Dutch or the French, for example," she added. Germany has close ties with the Netherlands, France and Poland outside of the NATO framework.

Shortly after Britain voted to leave the European Union in July, von der Leyen announced that Germany and France were preparing to have closer defense ties. However, there has been no formal statement from Chancellor Angela Merkel on the issue.

At a summit with the Visegrad countries - Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic - in Bratislava last month, Merkel refused to comment on the countries' request to set up an EU defense force to secure the bloc's borders.

mg/mkg (dpa, Reuters)