MEMBER countries have launched a programme of joint military investment and project development aimed at helping the European Union confront security challenges.

Twenty-three of the 28 member nations signed up to the process, known as permanent structured co-operation, or Pesco. Britain, due to leave the block in 2019, and Denmark, which has a defence opt-out, were among who did not take part.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said it was a “historic moment in European defence”. Those who did not sign up can join later.

Mogherini said countries have already submitted more than 50 joint projects in the fields of defence capabilities and military operations. Britain can take part in some if they are of benefit to the entire EU. Pesco, backed by the EU defence fund, “will enable member states to use the economy of scale of Europe and in this manner to fulfil the gap of output that we have,” Mogherini added.

The programme will only enter force once it has been legally endorsed, probably next month. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel hailed the agreement as a “milestone in European development” which strengthens the European Union’s security and defence policy.

Under the co-operation, member countries will submit an action plan outlining their defence aims. Mogherini, EU military chiefs and the European Defence Agency will then evaluate whether the plans are being respected.

Those not living up to their commitments could be kicked out of the bloc.

EU officials insist this is not just bureaucratic co-operation, but real investment that will help develop Europe’s defence industry and spur research and development in military capabilities.

Mogherini said the move would complement Nato’s security aims.

Meanwhile, the EU is banning arms sales to Venezuela and setting up a system to restrict travel and freeze assets of some Venezuelan officials to ramp up pressure on President Nicolas Maduro.

It said in a statement that the measures can be reversed depending on how Maduro reacts to demands for more democracy.