The European Union: The fog of politics
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, 2016
The European Union is pushing for more military co-ordination
But its latest proposals mostly miss the point
Sep 21st 2016 | Europe
TERRORISM, Russian adventurism, chaos in the Middle East and the possibility of a President Donald Trump: it is hardly surprising that the European Union wants to put defence and security at the top of its agenda. As the European Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, put it in his “State of the Union” speech on September 14th: “Europe needs to toughen up. Nowhere is this truer than in our defence policy.”
Although personally devoted to the federalist vision of a European army, Mr Juncker was careful not to raise its spectre on this occasion. Instead, he rattled off a number of ostensibly more achievable goals, some of which had been floated a few days before in a paper prepared by the French and German defence ministers for discussion. It was discussed at last week’s informal summit of European leaders in Bratislava; next week, EU defence ministers will be back there to take the talks further. The goal is to have a set of proposals agreed by the time of the next summit in December.
Most of the ideas are fairly old ones to enhance co-operation between the armed forces of willing EU members; they are being dusted off to meet the new mood of anxiety. The proposals include the establishment of a permanent military headquarters to plan and run EU military and civilian missions, such as Operation Sophia, launched last year against migrant-traffickers in the Mediterranean, and Operation Atalanta, an anti-piracy campaign off the coast of Somalia that began in 2008. Up to now, such missions have been run from HQs in nominated member states.
Britain has long vetoed the idea, worried that it would be expensive, duplicate stuff that NATO is much better-equipped to do and unsettle the alliance. Brexit makes the new HQ more probable. NATO seems relaxed, as long as it stays relatively small: say, a few hundred people compared with the 8,500 NATO employs to do this sort of work. Finding the money for even such a modest outfit will not be easy.
Another goal of the Franco-German plan is something called “permanent structured co-operation”, or PESCO. This would allow a core group of countries voluntarily to take steps towards greater integration of their military capabilities. There has been nothing to prevent it being used; Britain could not have prevented it. But the desire to do so has been lacking. Nick Witney, a former head of the European Defence Agency (EDA), which promotes co-operation in acquiring military equipment, remains sceptical of PESCO because it is hard to decide who joins and who does not.
Relations between NATO and the EU, often tense in the past, have recently improved. At the NATO summit in Warsaw this summer, the two organisations issued a joint declaration on how they would work together against new threats such as cyber attacks, uncontrolled migrant flows and “hybrid warfare” (the mix of conventional force, political subversion and disinformation that helped Russia conquer Crimea). NATO insiders say “the atmospherics are different now” and there is little risk of the EU supplanting NATO.
An idea that deserves a cautious welcome is the creation of an EU fund to finance defence-related research and development. It will start small but the aim is for it to grow to around €3.5 billion ($3.9 billion) within a few years. Again, the problem is not the concept, but getting member states to cough up the money.
Similarly, a new emphasis on “pooling and sharing” military kit, a longstanding aim of the EDA and of NATO, is nice in theory but has proved hard in practice because governments fret about losing control of their forces. Some countries have come together to share aerial tanker capacity, but pooling and sharing can only work if there is a firm understanding about how such assets will be used in a crisis.
Europe’s biggest shortcoming in defence is not its command structure but its capabilities. Successive American administrations have implored their European allies to stop cutting their military budgets and to spend what money they have on the things that matter. That means modern equipment rather than static divisions, bloated bureaucracies and pork, says Kori Schake, a former Pentagon official now at the Hoover Institution, a think-tank.
In the past year, most European defence budgets have stopped declining. Some are now gently rising. But only a handful of NATO’s European members — Britain, Estonia, Greece and Poland — meet the alliance’s 2% of GDP spending target (see chart). If the new push for EU defence acts as a spur to more spending on modern kit, the Americans will be happy; but if it is just posturing their exasperation will only be reinforced.
Jonathan Eyal of RUSI, a British think-tank, has a different concern. Much of this activity, he believes, is a sign of desperation on the EU’s part that the member state with the most effective armed forces will soon quit the club. But Europe, he says, is having the wrong debate. “The most urgent need,” he says, “is to find a way to keep Britain as integrated in Europe’s defence as possible.”