European Defence – now with added elan?

Nick Witney assesses the outcome of the French Presidency’s efforts on the ‘new impetus? for European defence

Last week’s European Summit generated headlines about Europe’s response to the global economic crisis, the energy/climate change package and the prospect of a second Irish vote on the Lisbon Treaty.

These three exciting topics ended up overshadowing the fourth (which France was keen to make the culminating event of its EU Presidency) – that a new impetus (in French, rather charmingly, ‘élan’) had been administered to Europe’s security and defence policy.

It is hard to fault the media judgment that this declaration did not really count as news. The game-plan has been evident for many months – France declares a success on European defence at the end of its Presidency to set the scene for its full reintegration into NATO at next April’s alliance summit.

Besides, most of the (real) achievements of France’s time in the EU chair, summarised in the Declaration on Strengthening Capabilities, had already been agreed and announced by defence ministers a month earlier. A clutch of new multinational projects have been launched, supported by different combinations of member states, and are all more or less directed towards better equipping Europeans to undertake peacekeeping and crisis-management missions. The efforts range from improving support helicopter availability, pooling air transport resources, collaboration on the next generation of observation satellites and naval mine-sweepers. Other worthwhile initiatives include improving naval interoperability to allow the formation of aircraft carrier groups, creation of new joint funds for defence research and technology, shared development of maritime surveillance systems (including a new drone) and staff college exchanges based on the Erasmus student exchange system.

Inevitably, this list of successes is balanced by issues that remain unaddressed. The increasingly urgent need for a proper Operational Headquarters in Brussels remains outstanding (though a significant step in that direction will be taken by the establishment of a joint civilian/military planning staff).  No progress has been achieved on sharing the burden of operations through greater common funding. But France correctly assessed that a truly significant breakthrough on European defence would require the committed support of either the UK or Germany – but neither was in a mood to provide that. The best hope for a productive Presidency was therefore in avoiding the most contentious issues, focusing on a range of severely practical projects and exploiting the principle of ‘variable geometry’ (different groups of member states signing up for different projects) to circumvent the uncooperative.

The product of this realistic approach, pushed with energy and persistence over the months of the French Presidency, may indeed justify the claim of ‘a new impetus’.

European leaders at the summit also endorsed a report on the implementation of the European Security Strategy. The seminal document, now five years old, defines the threats that Europeans face (terrorism, proliferation of nuclear and other weapons, etc) and enjoins Europe as more coherent, capable and active in its response.

The report is elegant, anodyne, and is something of a wasted opportunity. It has mildly interesting things to say about how security challenges have developed over the past five years, for example on energy and cyber security. It name-checks every prominent global security actor and issue, and is usually able to cite a relevant ‘EU Strategy’. But, days after the extraordinary Chinese snub of last-minute cancellation of the EU-China summit, the report’s sole reference to China – ‘We have substantially expanded our relationship with China’ – is unenlightening.

Further, it is an odd sort of ‘implementation report’ which invokes the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (evidently for helping Africans address their own security problems) without any comment on how that is panning out in Somalia, Darfur, Zimbabwe, or the Congo. (That last is, of course, particularly neuralgic at the moment, given Europe’s shameful failure to date to respond to the UN’s plea for extra peacekeepers in East Congo.)

The original European Security Strategy was an excellent document and remains highly relevant today. Those who produced the implementation report were evidently – and rightly – concerned not to detract from or supplant it. But they are also right to observe that ‘maintaining public support for our global engagement is fundamental’. This curiously bloodless report is unlikely to contribute to that cause. 

So where will the ‘new impetus’ take us? Defence reform is like riding an exercise bike – resistance and inertia are built into the machine. The new projects will take time to mature – and it is vital to keep bringing forward new endeavours, reinforcing the (deeply counter-cultural) practice of pooling efforts and resources between the different European defence ministries and armed forces. The Eurosceptic Czechs seem unlikely to prioritise this effort in their Presidency – but the following Swedes and Spanish will almost certainly encourage Europe to reapply itself to the pedals. The recently announced Spanish decision to abolish their post-Iraq numerical cap on overseas troop deployments is an especially heartening piece of year-end news.

And – from Georgia to Europe’s defence capabilities — the French Presidency has reaffirmed the importance of leadership. The West looks to be in for a new dose of this with the Obama Administration. Beyond the immediate awkwardness of being put on the spot over Afghanistan, the signs are that Europe can look forward to being received as never before as a genuine strategic partner with the US – provided only that it lives up to its own ambition of being a more coherent, capable and active contributor to global security.

The shortest route to achieving that will be to get the Lisbon Treaty, with its provisions for effective leadership in foreign affairs, into force. Nothing else is likely to offer a comparable boost for European defence efforts. So maybe the headlines last week, which focused on the new hope for Lisbon rather than the declared ‘new impetus’ for defence, got the priority right.


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


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.