London calling: How Britain now runs European security

With French President Sarkozy due in London, almost despite itself Britain has again become the centerpiece of European security cooperation

Something odd is happening across Europe’s security landscape. In spite of British Prime Minister Brown’s euro-scepticism, and Britain’s supposed European isolation following the Iraq War, London is once again becoming the centerpiece of European security cooperation.

Britain has always been Europe’s most militarily-capabale power due to its history of warfare, defence spending, but also proximity to the U.S. Like in tennis so in military affairs, it pays off to play with a better partner and Britain has learnt a lot from the U.S.

But something else seems to be happening. Countries once loyal to the build-up of European defense and their military relationships with Germany are turning towards Britain.

The Netherlands, for many years wedded to its military relationship with Germany – the two armies even share equipment storages – is turning towards London. Its Navy and Royal Marines have close links with their British counterparts, forged in part by fighting the Taliban.

In Denmark, the centre-right government has gradually detached the country from its traditional Nordic anchor and moved closer to London. “There is simply no scope for cooperation with Denmark”, a Swedish MP recently complained. Danish soldiers, who in the 1990s deployed to the Balkans as part of a Nordic Battle Group, now operate under British command both in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Europe’s two most militarily-capable newcomers – Poland and Romania – are also privileging links with Britain. Romanian soldiers serve under British command, both on deployments and in key multinational exercises. Britain provides an adviser to the Polish government to give advice on defence planning, programming and budget management.

Britain’s traditional military counterweight – France – has committed to re-joining NATO and is likely to obtain changes inside the alliance and hopes to get support for ESDP build-up.

But both these require Britain’s support and French president Nicolas Sarkozy has made it clear he hopes to cement an Anglo-French axis to generate a new “critical mass” driving EU foreign and security policy when he makes a state visit to Britain next week.

Germany, meanwhile, is turning increasingly inwards. It remains unwilling to send the Bundeswher into combat in southern Afghanistan despite repeated U.S entreaties, and its defense budget has declined almost continuously since reunification; spending is only one percent of its GDP on defense, which puts it at the bottom end of any NATO ranking. The two U.S.-German army corps, created in 1993, have been disbanded thus depriving the German army of the benefits of interaction with the U.S army.

The turn towards London has also seen a return of the “Iraq caucus” inside Europe – now more appropriately identified as the “RC South caucus” i.e. those countries deployed as part of NATO’s Regional Command South, which encompasses the southernmost districts or provinces of Afghanistan. Led by Britain, this caucus is driving NATO’s Afghan policy and will determine the Alliance’s overarching Afghan plan, to be agreed at the Alliance’s Bucharest Summit in April.

But it may only be a matter of time before its discussions turn from one theatre to joint exercises, cooperation on purchases and greater interoperability. This represents a threat to the viability of both NATO and ESDP on a number of levels.

First, the concern used to be the gap between the U.S military and European armies. Today, the U.S has moved so far ahead in terms of capability and battle-field experience that European militaries cannot hope to catch up. The new danger is a clearer division inside Europe with the caucus on one side and the rest of Europe on the other.

Second, as NATO’s article V becomes increasingly meaningless – with so many allies refusing to come to others’ aid in the fight again the Taliban – this caucus may develop a real, albeit unofficial, collective security guarantee.

These developments are not predetermined and if more countries move troops to southern Afghanistan, as many analysts predict will happen after the U.S presidential elections, the problem may go away.

Moreover, Britain had a similarly strong position in the early 1990s with all the Eastern European countries, as London sponsored their NATO entrance, and helped on defence reform. But the advantage was eroded because of British skepticism about ESDP.

For now, however, the pendulum has swung towards London and the reconfiguration of Europe’s security landscape is a reality.

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


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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