The Bumpy Road to an Autonomous European Defence

Dr. José María de Areilza. Professor. IE Business School

2 October 2006

The outbreak of the Balkan wars underscored the need for greater autonomy in European defence. But achieving that autonomy is easier said than done.

Since the Balkan conflict, the European Union has sought to increase its capacity for self-defence beyond what it can achieve with the backing of NATO and the United States. This road has been filled with obstacles and unanswered questions that rarely meet with public debate. We devote little time to discussing a matter as basic as our own defence. Indeed, after the disappearance of the Soviet menace, most European societies adopted a pacifist mentality, despite the barbarity of the September 11 terrorist attack and the subsequent terrorist bombings in Madrid and London.

In addition to growing global terrorism, other dangers also threaten the European way of life. These threats have been identified by the European Security Strategy of 2003 and include the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, criminal states, regional conflicts and organised crime.

In view of these new realities, European governments decided seven years ago to expand the European Union’s (EU) scope of responsibilities to include the area of defence. At the same time, a good number of Member States continued to consider NATO the cornerstone of European defence.

The European decision to gain a certain degree of autonomy in defence matters originates from the Balkan war. At first, the US considered this war a matter to be resolved by Europeans. But in the end the US’s intervention was decisive. Without Washington’s participation, the Europeans would not have been able to resolve what began as a dismembering of a State and ended with the return of ethnic cleansing and genocide to a civilised Europe.

In December 1998, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac adopted the Saint Malo Declaration, in which they proposed that Europe assume greater responsibility for its self-defence, both within and outside of NATO. The step was important, since France and the United Kingdom are the two European powers that have invested the most in their armed forces since the end of the Cold War, enabling them to become the most powerful military forces in Europe.

Saint Malo marked a pragmatic moment of harmony between two very different visions of Europe, as represented by Churchill and de Gaulle. As Timothy Garton Ash put it, both countries recognized that, for a European country, national sovereignty over defence is nothing more than a pipe dream. Tony Blair sought to strengthen the European pillar of the Alliance before the relationship between the US and European countries could be irrevocably damaged, weakening Europe even further. With this in mind, the United Kingdom lifted its veto on the creation of an autonomous European defence system.

By this time, France began to show its true feelings towards NATO, which according to the Saint Malo Declaration continued to be the basis for the collective defence of its members. However, the French stance was very different from that of Great Britain, impelling it to seek greater EU influence over international politics through the birth of a European defence system that went beyond the Alliance. Its vision of a politically strengthened Europe was based on transforming the EU into a counterweight to the US, as became clear during the Iraqi crisis.

In June 1999, after the Kosovo war, the European Council of Cologne extended the Franco-British plan to include the EU, creating the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). Soon after, this initiative gave rise to an institution designed to take part in the defence of Europe. The objective was not to create a European army, but rather something much more modest: establishing a reserve of national units so that, by unanimous decision of the Council, the EU could deal with an international crisis requiring light, mobile and flexible troops.

The US had three reservations about this European defence initiative: efforts should not be duplicated; member states should not be allowed to leave NATO, and no discrimination should be showed towards European countries that were members of NATO but not of the EU-- in other words, Turkey. These concerns highlighted the principle of NATO primacy. What is more, the Berlin Plus agreement specified the ways in which the EU could count on NATO resources “wherever NATO decides not to intervene”. By now several theories existed of how European self-defence could be implemented with NATO resources. Despite the many ambiguities, two peacekeeping operations using the Berlin Plus model have been deployed in Bosnia and Macedonia since 2003.

However, the real obstacles to an autonomous European defence have not been caused by the US and NATO--or by differences between the French and the British-- but rather by Europe’s own limited military capacities. The union has failed to tackle the formidable challenge of coordinating joint operations by European forces, something that NATO does exceedingly well.

The most obvious example of this failure was the 1999 decision of the European Council of Helsinki to establish a Rapid Reaction Force. This was to be a 60,000-man force that could be prepared in 60 days for carrying out missions of up to one year. The aim was to have this force up and running before 2003. It soon became evident, however, that not even this modest goal was possible. Together, Europeans were unable to deal with the transport, logistics and interoperability of such a force. In the end, the decision was taken to re-examine the idea and propose new objectives for 2010, while giving priority to the creation of small battle groups.

The succession of diplomatic errors committed by the US during the Iraq war in 2003 sparked debates about European autonomy in security matters. France along with Germany and Belgium used the Iraqi crisis to push for the creation of a European general headquarters as reinforcement for the ESDP. Washington believed this proposal contravened the EU-NATO co-operation agreements. Since then, Tony Blair has tried to help rebuild trans-Atlantic relations. In fact, once the newly appointed Chancellor Angela Merkel gave signs of wanting to improve trans- Atlantic relations, France quickly sought a privileged position in European talks with the US and NATO. It also worked with Washington on preventive diplomacy regarding Iran.

The 25-state EU represents 25% of world GDP and has a population of 450 million. Despite its size, the EU lacks its own security capacities-- leaving aside its progressive specialisation in peacekeeping operations (90% of NATO troops in this kind of mission in Kosovo and Afghanistan are European). The European debate on defence was ignited by the incorporation and integration of new member countries and by the huge security risks posed by the current crises in Iran and Palestine. The EU is right to claim autonomy from NATO. On the other hand, unless it has real defence capabilities, the EU will have little credibility.

The EU would better serve its own interests by showing the US that it is a dependable partner. When there is a will for cooperation in joint EU-NATO operations, the association works. NATO, too, needs to undergo changes in order to deal better with the new threats on freedom, including international terrorism and the threat of nuclear proliferation.


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