Time to rally the European troops, General Ashton

Baroness Ashton may be judged on how well she dons a general's beret. In building Europe's military capabilities, there is fortunately both much to rectify and build on.

ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

There will be no shortage of advice in Baroness Ashton’s in-box. Go to this summit, visit that country, speak to this person. Her old friends will lobby her like never before and new ones will emerge, proffering support and an idea or two. Some will argue she needs to hide herself in her new office and emerge in spring, butterfly-like, with a new blueprint for Europe’s diplomatic service. Others will maintain that unless she shows diplomatic legerdemain, for example on Iran or the EU’s links with Russia, or on transatlantic relations she will be a failure whatever she does with the EU bureaucracy.

In truth, Baroness Ashton will probably have to do all of the above – and then some. And whatever order she chooses to tick off the tasks, her actions will be greeted by exaggerated disappointment or exaggerated euphoria. Though much has been made of the differences between President Obama and High Representative-Elect Ashton, in this regard they are quite similar; both carry the burden of unrealistic expectations.

On another point, President Obama and Baroness Ashton are similar. They will both be defined by how well they wear a general’s beret. For the US president, his entire term may be defined by the success (or failure) of his new Afghan policy. In turn, Baroness Ashton’s reputation may rest on the attention she gives her predecessor’s main achievements – CSDP, the new name for European Security and Defence Policy in the Lisbon Treaty.

It is ten years since ESDP was launched, at an Anglo-French ‘summit’ at St. Malo, and there much to show for it. Twenty-three missions have been launched. In the last twelve months alone, the EU staked its credibility on missions in Kosovo and Georgia. The Israeli assault on Hamas last winter sparked excited talk of an expanded EU role in the Middle East. Now European leaders have agreed to launch a Somalia mission; there are already EU ships patrolling the Horn of Africa in an effort to stem piracy.

Even if economic constraints will cause finance ministries to cut back foreign commitments, and even if the public are becoming weary of overseas missions, the EU is likely to continue to develop its military and civilian capabilities. They have, in the words of a European diplomat, “caught the ESDP bug”. But EU governments will have to work hard on this.

The full extent by which the ESDP has fallen short of expectations, and what needs to be done to make it effective, is set out in a report by Nick Witney, who, until 2007 was the Chief Executive of the European Defence Agency. While there are almost 2 million military personnel in Europe, compared to less than 1.5 million in the US, less than one-fifth of these are defined as ‘deployable’, and only one in 20 was actually deployed in military operations or peace-keeping activities in 2006. “Massive sums”, the report states, are spent on “irrelevance”. A companion report written by Richard Gowan and I looked at Europe’s civilian capabilities. It found most EU governments wanting and most EU missions strategically irrelevant. Though the EU devised an ambitious set of “civilian headline goals” in 2004 in order to ensure that each EU state committed enough civilian experts, during the last five years the EU has only deployed half the number it promised.

Both reports were backed up by the EUISS — the EU’s own think-tank – which in an encyclopedic study said “the gap between the discourse and practice of ESDP has been significant”. So there is work to be done to fix old problems and to build on past successes. Yet nobody seems to know what all the defense-related provisions in the Lisbon Treaty actually mean. To move this forward, Baroness Ashton could ask an ad hoc group of defense ministers, for example led by Spain, Belgium, Poland and France, to elaborate a Defense Action Plan for discussion at an extraordinary “Defence Summit” of EU leaders in early 2010.

Ideally, this summit would agree to draft a European Defence White Paper and inaugurate “pioneer groups” in order to make more progress in the specific area of capabilities, as a sort of crypto Permanent Structured Cooperation. Baroness Ashton would do well to push civilian ESDP too. In warfare, most innovations happen in the field not in Headquarters. So Baroness Ashton would do well to empower field commanders, allowing them to find innovative solutions. This will take time, but early visits to Kabul, Sarajevo, Pristina and Kinshasa signal the start of a new kind of dialogue between Brussels and the EU’s missions.

For a more comprehensive reform, it may wise to appoint a high-level panel, perhaps led by a current or former EUSR, who can undertake a study of what needs to be fixed, much as Lakhdar Brahimi did for the UN. The report could also be discussed at the “Defence Summit”.

Then there is the matter of EU-NATO relations. CSDP will not progress if it is (again) seen as opposed to NATO. That is not to say NATO-EU links need to be a big area of work. Even with the new Greek government reaching out to Turkey, the Cyprus issue looks unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. But making the right sounds, and looking pragmatic will be crucial, in part to assuage the US and Britain. A schedule of joint visits with the NATO Secretary-General to theatres where both EU and NATO have deployed would please many and cost little. So would below-the-radar initiatives like joint EU-NATO training of military and civilian personnel deploying to Afghanistan. Finding ways for European governments to further support NATO’s Afghan mission will be key, not least to make the White House feel that the Lisbon Treaty offers something more than another set of European institutions.

In the High Representative’s job description, there is work for several office-holders. But Baroness Ashton may ultimately be judged by how well she builds on Javier Solana’s legacy and takes on the task to build Europe’s military capacities. Luckily, there is both much to fix and much to build on.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow