European Union defence ministers have agreed to set up a military rapid reaction force, to be deployed at short notice to conflicts around the world.
An EU force could act independently of Nato
The force, to be in place within three years, will consist of a number of units each made up of 1500 troops.
France, Italy, Britain and Spain will each form a unit, and other EU states will be expected to contribute troops.
Ministers expect the first of the battle groups to be operational by next year, with eight more by 2007.
The development is part of an EU effort to develop an independent defence capacity that can be deployed outside of US-led Nato missions.
UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said the battle groups were not a precursor to the EU developing a standing army.
"Battle groups will be capable of dealing with a range of
peace support and humanitarian tasks," Mr Hoon said.
"They are particularly intended for situations where an early intervention with a highly capable battle group-size force could deal with an emerging crisis."
Rapid reaction forces could be deployed to fill a gap before UN peacekeepers can be deployed, as a French-led operation did in the Bunia region of eastern Congo earlier this year.