EU defence ministers have agreed plans to create up to nine rapid-reaction battle groups which could be sent to international trouble spots from 2007.
Macedonia was the EU's first military mission
The plans are part of an ambitious six-year drive to shake up the EU's military capabilities.
Under the scheme, each contingent would have 1,500 soldiers and could be deployed within two weeks.
Officials envisage the force being used to help stabilise conflict areas or to protect humanitarian operations.
French Defence Minister Michelle Alliot-Marie said the agreement marked "considerable progress" by the EU.
The battle group proposal is part of a package of defence measures called the "2010 Headline Goal," which the EU aims to bring in over the next six years.
They also include:
- An aircraft carrier with associated air and naval escort
- An EU airlift command to deploy troops in hotspots
- A revamped communications network including space-based systems
- A planning cell in Brussels for EU military operations.
The 25 EU defence ministers meeting in Brussels agreed to "commit themselves to be able by 2010 to respond with rapid and decisive action... to the whole spectrum of crisis management operations."
The EU began drawing up plans for a military arm in response to the violent break-up of Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda during the 1990s.
EU officials say the success of military missions in Macedonia in 2001 and the Congolese city of Bunia last year shows how the policy can work without duplicating the efforts of the Nato military alliance.
The proposals are due to be finalised in time for the next summit of European leaders in June.