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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union on Monday agreed a defense plan that could see it sending rapid response forces abroad for the first time, as U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's criticism of allies appeared to galvanize Europe into revamping its strategy.
The plan set out by EU defense and foreign ministers could allow the bloc to send forces to stabilize a crisis before U.N. peace keepers can take over, and more broadly cement a willingness to act without the United States.
"Europe needs to be able to act for its own security," French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters.
"This will allow Europe to take a step towards its strategic autonomy," said Le Drian, who has led the EU efforts along with Germany and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, using EU code language for greater independence of Washington.
The 16-page plan lists tasks and aims, many of which risk remaining abstract without an increase in funding.
But it nonetheless takes on special relevance after Trump's comments during his campaign for the U.S. presidency in which he sniped at low levels of defense spending by some of NATO's European members.
Mogherini said there was support from governments on using so-called EU battle groups of 1,500 personnel, which have been operational since 2007 but never used.
EU leaders must still sign off on the plan in December, while divisive aspects over money were left for officials to work out next year. Proposals for a European military headquarters were scaled back to focus on civilian missions.
Figures on the table for funding the EU plan pale in comparison to the $18 billion that the United States aims to spend over the next five years on new technologies.
During the U.S. election campaign Trump threatened to abandon U.S. allies in Europe if they did not spend enough on defense, appearing to question almost 70 years of U.S. military support that has been a cornerstone of American foreign policy.
"Clearly it is a message for all of to see how we can increase and improve our coordination," Sweden's Foreign minister Margot Wallstrom said of Trump's campaign comments, even though her country is not itself a member of the U.S.-led NATO alliance.
The election of a Russia-friendly political novice as president in Bulgaria - a member of both the EU and NATO - has given further impetus to French and German efforts to improve common defense operations.
The EU has 17 military and civilian missions underway - many of them out of the classic European theater, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Mediterranean where it is seeking to stem migrant flows from Libya and uphold a U.N. arms embargo.
But European planners were at pains to stress the plan would not rival the work of NATO which Britain, one of two nuclear-armed European members together with France, is setting as a priority since it voted to pull out of the European Union.
British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, who supported Britain remaining in the EU, said Europe had to increase defense spending that has sunk to historic lows in some parts of western Europe since the end of the Cold War.
Only five EU countries, including Britain, meet a NATO target of spending 2 percent of economic output on defense, while another 10 have set firm plans to reach that level. That meant only half the EU's members were putting up enough funds for the training and equipment that Europe needs, Fallon said.
"Rather than dreaming of a European army, the best approach to the Trump presidency is for European countries to step up their own defense spending," Fallon told reporters in the margins of the meeting.
The EU's Mogherini, who chaired the gathering, went out of her way to say there were no plans to form a European army and countries would retain control over their militaries.
France has also pushed defense cooperation along with Germany after Britons voted to leave the EU in a June referendum.
Some eastern and Baltic EU nations worry stronger European defense coordination could duplicate or undermine NATO, while Ireland, Sweden and Austria are more generally cautious.
Though the new steps proposed are generally seen as modest, one diplomat said the proposed plan broke taboos that have held back European defense cooperation since the French parliament rejected a first attempt in the 1950s.
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Richard Balmforth