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Future options for European defense

, by Francesco Molica

By monopolising the attention of European governments and institutions, the Euro crisis is once again overshadowing an equally pressing issue: that of military cooperation amongst member states. Thirteen years into the Saint-Malo summit, in which France and the UK set the stage for its promising development, the European Common Security and Defence Policy appears to be stuck in a miserable impasse. The handful of minor initiatives launched under its banner may hardly disavow this uncomfortable truth.

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Meanwhile, the backdrop is quickly transforming. NATO is confronted with an ever deeper crisis of identity as the US gently disengages from the alliance. It was no coincidence that a few days ago Barack Obama unveiled a fresh defence strategy that called for greater US military presence in Asia and envisions cutting the number of troops stationed in Europe.

At the same time, the two historical pillars of European military clout, notably France and the UK, were recently forced to slim down defence budgets as harsh austerity policies passed in the aftermath of the economic crunch. British PM David Cameron is pushing ahead with a controversial plan of defence cuts worth £5 billion: a decision that only a decade ago would have been unthinkable.

Considering that, by contrast, the emerging economies are rushing to increase their armaments (China is not surprisingly at the fore of this group) and revamping the Saint-Malo spirit is “no longer an option, it is a matter of necessity, and even a matter of urgency”, European Defence Agency Head Claude-France Arnould recently cautioned.

Due to a mix of geopolitical ambitions and concerns, Poland proved to be highly sensitive to this plea, putting the “enhancement of EU military capabilities” high on the agenda for its EU presidency. On paper, Warsaw was determined to revive the strategic ambitions for Europe articulated by Nicolas Sarkozy back to 2008 during the last French semester. At that time the French President had presented his peers in the Council with a long and detailed string of proposals for greater military integration. Besides, the necessity to breathe new life into EU defence was reiterated by Paris in 2010 in a letter signed along with Germany and Poland and addressed to the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Little has been done ever since. Poland’s margin for manoeuvre has narrowed precipitately since August when markets opened fire against Italy and fears of a Eurozone collapse started spreading. The moral of the story is this: the Eastern European country kicked off the semester under the best conditions, only to find itself playing a marginal role in the face of frantic attempts at healing the common currency’s pains.

Another important chance to address the issue of military cooperation has thus gone nearly up in smoke, leaving its two main weaknesses dramatically unresolved: the fragmentation of the European defence domain and the insufficiency of financial resources allocated to it.

On the one hand, relinquishing even a portion of national sovereignty over defence to shared decisions taken under the umbrella of a common military policy is still anathema to some states, especially the UK. Former British Defence Secretary Liam Fox made it crystal clear last October hence dismissing plans to beef up the European defence as “a non-sense”.

But for all its exhortations do not expect France to bow so easily to the establishment of, say, a common European army. In Gaullist terms the idea of “cooperation” is far different to that of “federalism”, and that applies to the military field too. Therefore, it is not taken for granted that behind the ambitious plans backed by many EU countries lies a concrete will to engage into a full-fledged integration on defence.

On the other hand, barely 3 out of 27 member states meet NATO’s recommendation to spend at least more than 2% of national GDP per year on defence. And the picture is even gloomier when one takes into account that over the last years in all the EU countries military expenditure shrank on average by at least 5%.

Beside these notorious shortcomings, there lingers a third neglected issue. For the good or the bad any upcoming transformation of the EU project will be strictly tied to (and ultimately depend upon) Germany. Therefore Berlin is to have a crucial say should member states eventually consent to move forward on the thorny dossier of European defence. That’s not necessarily good news. Angela Merkel’s approach to European integration is laid bare for once and for all: it lacks that dose of boldness that inspired historical achievements such as the Maastricht treaty. Moreover, Germany still looks mired in an immature and somewhat apathetic vision of its military projection. This is a basic fact corroborated by the refusal to take part in the Libyan intervention. Perhaps the “Shuldfrage”-the question of guiltiness derived from the Nazi regime - is still rooted somewhere in the political and public subconscious of the country.

In truth, Poland’s aspirations to bring back on track the EU defence strategy did not go entirely unheard. On 30 November a small step was taken, when member states agreed to pool resources in 11 defence fields ranging from mid-air refuelling to field hospitals.

However significant, such measures give evidence that at this pace, achieving a decent level of integration on defence could take years, even decades. If anything, that is witnessed by the latest EU joint operations. The Atlanta anti-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa is currently marshalling three ships out of the six needed to mark any meaningful results. Similar shortfalls are endangering the EU law and order mission in Kosovo.

Outside the EU legal framework, the adversities crippling the European military domain are even more awkward. The conflict in Libya was all but a Pyrrhic victory for France and the UK, who led the operations under the aegis of NATO. Suffice to quote Robert Gates’ criticism: “the mightiest military alliance in history, the US Defence Secretary said in June, is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country – yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference”. This is a clear reference to Europe.

In the face of this gloomy situation, talking about military cooperation in Europe, albeit necessary, seems by now nearly obsolete. Member states should think bigger and dare to take the path of a “defence federalism”. Only by embracing this radical plan they would be able to rationalise and, most of all, update their military forces to the challenges posed by today’s reality.

Recent insights into the state of art of the military sector in Europe have disclosed a growing amount of flaws. For instance out of 1.61 million soldiers European countries can deploy, barely 60,000 work on mid- and high-intensity operations.

Some significant advancements have been recently made but perhaps in the wrong direction. According to some pundits, the military deal signed by France and the UK in November 2010 might be viewed “at best as a detour and at worst as a repudiation of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s commitment to strengthening EU defence”.

On top of that, up until now Europe has been able to compensate for the crisis of its military influence with a solid soft power relying on the attractiveness of its economic model or strong ties with former colonies. However this well-known hallmark of the European sway is waning too. Hence, the urgency for elevating the EU defence strategy to an absolute political priority.

Sticking to the Kantian paradigm upon which the European Union has been created is as much important as keeping alive and consolidating an efficient military deterrent in a world where the traditional geopolitical balances are quickly changing.

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  • On 5 November 2012 at 21:55, by Joe Replying to: Future options for European defense

    The US realigning to balance China’s influence IS good for Europe, so it’s best to not look at this as a binary chooice the US has to make between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

    As to the issue of Europeans leaving yet more of its’ defence posture to others in the world, and to the unreliable vagueries of memberships and treaties - well that’s a subject for the people, whatever the outcome may be. It’s their flech and blood in defence, and their flesh and blood being defended.

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