The initiative, agreed by member states after a brief discussion, underlines the European Union's reaction to the Kosovo crisis, where Europe was exposed a militarily dependent on the United States for firepower, heavy lift and intelligence service.
The premiers of the 15 member states rubber-stamped plans submitted by foreign ministers to help the EU "to have an autonomous capacity to take decisions and, where Nato as a whole is not engaged, to launch and then conduct EU-led military operations in response to international crises".
Under the proposals, the EU has committed itself to earmark up to 15 brigades, equivalent to 40,000-60,000 troops who can be deployed within 60 days and sustained in theatre for at least one year. The force should be self-sustaining with command, control and intelligence capabilities, logistics other combat support services and air and naval elements but, as Britain's Europe minister, Keith Vaz stressed yesterday, will "not constitute a European army".
Control of the new policy will initially be in the hands of an interim committee. That will ultimately give way to a standing political and security committee, at senior or ambassador level, and a military committee based in Brussels.
However, the most politically sensitive issue, that of the relationship between the European defence establishment and Nato is as yet unresolved. The vital issue of whether Nato has to be consulted first, before any European action, will be thrashed out next year when the operational details of the force are decided. But, in an attempt to calm American fears over the EU initiative, the EU stressed that "Nato remains the foundation of the collective defence of its members, and will continue to have an important role in crisis management".
The EU would "ensure the necessary dialogue, consultation and co-operation with Nato and its non-EU members" and modalities for this would be developed.
Nevertheless, "initially, relations will be developed on an informal basis", it added, underlining that regular but informal meetings - usually over breakfast - between Nato's secretary general, Lord Robertson, and his predecessor, Javier Solana, now the EU's foreign and security policy representative, will continue.
The proposals on defence were adopted at the EU summit in Helsinki yesterday after only brief debate and relatively minor changes to a draft proposed by Finland, which currently holds the EU's revolving presidency.