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Editor’s blog – Is a collective defence capacity in Europe inevitable?

By Dean Carroll

This week in Brussels, the vague notion of a European Union defence capacity is once again on the agenda. We know that former United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned European Union member states to step up to the plate on military spending or risk the collapse of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Only five out of 28 countries meet NATO’s goal of devoting 2 per cent of gross domestic product to defence. They are: America, France, Britain, Albania and Greece. And joint operations in Libya were overwhelmingly condemned by critics for being flawed in their approach and execution.

Gates was right to say that an increasingly demilitarised Europe is failing to live up to the shared sacrifice essential to a military partnership that has – to date – prevented a Third World War for some 60 years. Perhaps, Europe has been too focused on enlargement and trade. Why should we seriously consider pooling sovereignty when it comes to a defence capacity, which is more than notional, when there is no real threat – national political leaders ask? Geopolitical shifts, escalating conflicts in the Middle East and developments like China admitting to building at least one aircraft carrier suggest this view is outmoded.

But as Gates put it in his valedictory speech: “Regrettably, but realistically, this situation of low European defence spending is highly unlikely to change.” Germany’s lack of willingness to intervene in Libya could be a sign of things to come. A two-tier and increasingly irrelevant NATO might quicken a renationalisation of defence.

Some, including Gates, say that the “pacification” of Europe has incontrovertibly gone too far – leading to the current paucity of military resources and 75 per cent of NATO’s budget being bankrolled by America. A larger share than was witnessed even at the height of the Cold War. Our friends across the Atlantic now feel it is time to refocus military protectionist efforts away from Europe to the Middle East and Asia. So who will fill the void? We know that Poland has redoubled its efforts to promote European defence co-operation. But whether it can coerce the other 27 EU partners to find the political will to take action seems unlikely.

Meanwhile, the elephant in the room is Turkey. Bringing Turkey inside the European tent has the potential to co-opt another sizeable army. This, in addition, to Turkey’s booming economy – with its growth rate up there with India and China – and its burgeoning democracy. As former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw once said, Turkey is now also “the dominant actor” in its region and “increasingly influential on the world stage” through growing “assertiveness in foreign and economic policy”.

Urging Germany and France to offer Turkey similar strategic support to that given to the country by the United Kingdom, Straw continued: “At a time when the EU desperately needs strong allies it is myopic in the extreme for its leaders to appear to be turning away from the strongest, richest and most democratic state in the Middle East.” It seems that Europe’s only hope for continued relevance in the 21st century is greater openness and collaboration – whether the issue happens to be Turkey or NATO. An alternative scenario of isolationism would, surely, be ill-judged.

So if western intervention is ever to make a return to form by backing those nations that request help, the EU must stand alongside NATO to prove that it really is a global actor. Leaving it to individual member states is, of course, another option. But then the European External Action Service must not pretend it has a role beyond issuing motherhood-and-apple pie press statements. Alternatively, the EEAS could become the EES by removing the word ‘action’ from its title. It would be a far more accurate description of what we have seen so far from Europe as a military collective.

After all, ‘action’ suggests more than soft diplomacy. You could even argue that Catherine Ashton’s organisation has not even been able to achieve the latter effectively although there have been major success in Iran and the Balkans. Still, most of the time world leaders pay little attention to the agency’s work. Most nations prefer bilateral discussions, instead. However, the EEAS has achieved ‘super-observer status’ for the EU at the United Nations in New York. It is a tangible achievement but there is still much room for improvement.

The momentous times we are living through, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the mobilisation of formerly subjugated populations by way of technology, are tailor-made for a single European voice on international affairs and defence. To date, though, we have heard no roar and the EU appears to be more mouse than lion.

Some of the larger private sector defence players are at least attempting to embrace globalisation and a shift in geopolitical power from the West to the East with crystal clear thinking. Trade is moving to emerging markets and so business models need to be adapted to ensure that they are open and accessible to the big players in the new world order, say corporate leaders. Potential deals like the failed BAE-EADS merger could eventually become commonplace . As EU member states continue to wobble over the paradox of protecting sovereignty while gaining critical mass through collectivism, the private sector might jump ahead of the curve.

The EU does already have a treaty-based Common Foreign and Security Policy but the collective military doctrine is not much more than a fudge whereby ministerial meetings are held and the end result is simply vague speculation about future collaboration. Certainly, a collective European army remains nothing more than notional. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is still king despite growing non-NATO cooperation between the United Kingdom and France; and as we have heard, NATO itself is close to crisis.

In addition, pronouncements of increased military ‘pooling and sharing’ from the European Defence Agency quango continue to ring hollow. Meanwhile, plans to build a ‘single operational headquarters’ for European defence – staffed by 250 personnel – have faced opposition from irascible Eurosceptics in the UK. The idea that the likes of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Ashton will have the gumption to lance the boil on EU defence, by advocating a downgrade of national sovereignty in favour of military collectivism, seems fanciful at this moment in time. But if large-scale private sector collaboration finally forces the hand of member states, a whole new landscape may yet emerge. To be continued.

Dean Carroll is editor of Policy Review

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