Is the EU finally ready to pool its defences?

A country’s ability to defend itself with its own armies is one of the hallmarks of sovereignty, so it is understandable that European Union governments are sensitive to the idea that their militaries might one day fall under the command of someone else. In the almost six decades since the Treaty of Rome set up what is now the EU, talk of pooling armed resources has been so toxic that it barely crept on the agenda. Until now.

The common European defence policy could be an idea whose time has finally come. Britain’s referendum vote in June to leave the EU has prompted the other 27 members to pick up a long dormant notion and put it on the table for serious discussion. As the EU’s biggest military spender, the United Kingdom’s consent was always seen as essential to further defence integration, yet successive British governments have always baulked at what they say is a fast track to a European army. Brexit means this block is now removed, and the rest of the EU is now asking whether they need ‘more Europe’ when it comes to defence.

In September, the French and German defence ministers unveiled bold plans to bulk up the EU’s military capability, including a swifter deployment of overseas missions. Germany’s Ursula Von der Leyen and her French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a six-page paper that EU military missions, such as the Sophia anti-migrant smuggler operation or the Atalanta anti-pirate mission, should in future be commanded from a joint military HQ possibly in Brussels, with its own medical and logistical assets, such as air-lift equipment.

The efforts would build on existing capacities: while the EU has led over 30 civilian and military missions, from Kosovo to Afghanistan, they said the lack of a permanent structure has meant it has not been able to act effectively. And they build on existing military command and control structures like the EU Military Staff (which supervises Common Security and Defence Policy operations), the EU Military Committee (which gathers military officials under the EU High Representative), and the European Defence Agency (which promotes defence cooperation).

Italy has gone further, calling for a, “Schengen of defence,” which is described as, “a powerful and usable European Force that can also be employed in support to NATO or UN operations.”

These calls were echoed by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who outlined plans to coordinate EU defence operations at his annual state of the union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. He pointed to the need to reinforce the EU’s anti-terror defences with joint European military operations headquartered in Brussels, as well as the deployment of EU battle groups and common investments for military hardware.

Critics noted that at the Bratislava summit of the EU 27 last month, the plans were only given a lukewarm welcome. But earlier in October, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, brought it up again when they set out a joint plan to create a new military structure to conduct crisis missions.

The four countries, the biggest military powers in the EU 27, laid out their scheme in a letter to their counterparts in the other member states, including Britain, saying the EU should have a “permanent” and “autonomous” capability to “plan and conduct” overseas military operations “from low to high intensity levels”. They would take place in countries like Mali, Somalia, the Central African Republic, and Congo.

The timing of these initiatives is not just related to Brexit. New threats to Europe’s security have emerged in recent years to test the collective will. Islamic State’s actions in the Middle East and north Africa have drawn in western powers, while the spillover of terrorist atrocities onto Europe territory has changed the internal security debate. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has shown that the eastern frontier is still vulnerable. And the refugee crisis drove the EU to send military ships to the Mediterranean to tackle people smuggling.

Then there are questions about the Atlantic alliance: Washington is asking, in an increasingly loud voice, why it should bear so much of NATO’s burdens. US officials want Europeans to raise defence spending and strengthen their militaries, especially when it comes to issues in their own neighbourhood. While no-one in the current Obama Administration has suggested pulling back from the NATO commitments – as Republican Party presidential nominee Donald Trump did recently – the inability of European governments to pull their weight is an ongoing irritant.

That may be changing. Although the 28 EU member states collectively spent some €200 billion on defence in 2015, around 15 percent less than in 2007, spending is set to rise by over 1 percent in 2016, ending six consecutive years of cuts. There is also recognition that Europe’s fragmented defence industry needs to integrate: for example, while the US has just one type of armoured infantry fighting vehicle, there are 19 across the EU.

And while Britain has justified its resistance to EU defence by saying it would undermine and duplicate NATO: their memberships overlap and the EU’s only non-NATO members are Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland and Malta. But both NATO and the US are relaxed about the latest initiatives. “This shouldn’t be a competition. We’ll do it together. A strong Europe is good for NATO,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, although he also suggested the EU should ensure its efforts complement rather than copy NATO actions.

Agreeing a coherent common defence system is still a huge challenge. There are wildly divergent strategic cultures, military capabilities and security priorities amongst the EU 27. Britain’s stubbornness over the issue has provided convenient cover for the other governments to justify lack of progress in building their capacity. And although the recent proposals stirred some internal dynamism and unity amongst the 27 after the Brexit vote, they all have relatively long timelines that have yet to fully developed.

But this is the story with almost every major EU initiative: at first, the obstacles always seem enormous. For the moment, the EU member states have taken the most difficult step on common defence coordination. They are talking about it.

Words Leo Cendrowicz, Dennis Abbott & Karen Massin (Burson-Marsteller Brussels)
Photos CC/Flickr European Union Naval Force Somalia Operation Atalanta

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