European defence: Noises off

On ESDP, a decade of procrastination and missed opportunities has taught us some important lessons

EUFOR carHow gratifying for Europeans listening to Barack Obama’s speech in Berlin’s Tiergarten to hear him affirm that “America has no better partner than Europe”, and to talk of how allies must “listen to each other, learn from each other and, most of all, trust each other”.

And how unsettling to hear him talk also of the need for “shared sacrifice”, and to assert that “the Afghan people need our troops and your troops; our support and your support to defeat the Taliban, and al Qaeda”. The next American President, whether Democrat or Republican, will be politer to Europeans than the current incumbent; but he will also be more demanding – and harder to fob off.

For the EU’s new French Presidency, with their priority of boosting ‘l’Europe de la Defense’, these ‘noises off’ can only be encouraging. And they will need all the encouragement they can get. For the European defence enterprise, launched at the famous Franco-British summit at St Malo nearly ten years ago, has in truth made depressingly little progress.

20 EU crisis-management operations to date sounds like a lot. But three-quarters of them have involved deployment of policemen or legal experts, not troops; half have comprised less than 100 personnel; and four of the five main military interventions, in Macedonia, Congo (twice) and Bosnia, have ridden on the coat-tails of either UN or NATO peace-keepers.

Meanwhile, efforts to make Europe’s militaries fit for purpose – the purpose in today’s world being expeditionary, multinational operations, not stopping invaders at the national frontier – have been even less productive. The original vision of a 60,000-strong rapid reaction force has been quietly shelved, in favour of 1,500-man ‘battlegroups’. 70% of Europe’s land forces simply cannot operate outside national territory. Europe’s 10,000 main battle tanks would be fine for a re-run of the battle of Kursk, but are little use in Chad or Afghanistan. Figures such as these highlight the extent to which Europeans’ combined annual defence spending in Europe of some 200 billion euros is simply money down the drain.

From the decade of wasted opportunity, however, some important truths can be distilled. First, there is no need for (unattainable) increases in defence spending – the money just needs to be spent on the right things, like support helicopters. Second, Europeans have no choice but to pool their efforts and resources; even the UK and France have had to accept that increased mutual reliance is the only way either can hope to make their defence books balance. Third, points one and two are, for defence establishments, profoundly counter-cultural. They hate change (their rationale, after all, is to protect the status quo), and they hate depending on others. So both ditching those tanks, and cooperating with others on the next generation of combat radio, will require external pressure. Fourth, Europeans are a heterogeneous lot, and efforts to develop European defence need to recognise and accommodate this diversity.

This last point is especially relevant in the aftermath of the Irish ‘No’ to the Lisbon Treaty. For some, this latest failure to get 27 runners and riders into the starting gates at the same time has only confirmed the need to accept a ‘multi-speed’ Europe. Whether or not this is true for the future of the Union as a whole, there is no room for dispute in defence – multi-speed is the reality, and will remain so as long as 27 Member States reserve the right to set their own defence policies, and take their own decisions about sending their young men and women into danger (as of course they all do – despite the ‘EuroArmy’ fantasy). So the model for European defence has to be ‘variable geometry’ – some Member States pooling their efforts on defence research, others setting up joint air transport commands, and so on – each according to national interest and aptitude.

This approach – the concept of the ‘pioneer group’ – appears in the Lisbon Treaty in the provisions on ‘permanent structured cooperation’. But, with Lisbon in baulk for the foreseeable future, the principles should be introduced as far and as fast as possible into the existing practices and institutions of European defence – most obviously, into the workings of the European Defence Agency.

Beyond that, the Presidency’s agenda looks to be much on the right lines. The chronic problems over mounting and running ESDP operations need urgent attention. There needs to be a better shared understanding of where and when European interests and values may require interventions – and a greater readiness to share the burden, both through cost-sharing and through more member states keeping more of the right kind of units on stand-by. It is high time, too, for the much-discussed European civilian reserve corps to become a reality. And the current improvisations for the planning and conduct of operations must be replaced by a proper EU Operational Headquarters in Brussels, in which military and civilian staffs are fully integrated. The EU’s claim to be uniquely capable of blending hard and soft power in crisis management will remain hollow as long as ‘civilian’ and ‘military’ operations are quite separately handled at the strategic level of command, as is the case today.

On capabilities – the tools to do the job – the effort to get Member States to focus on the real, as opposed to the convenient, deficiencies must be pursued. At long last specific action is underway to make more support helicopters available – it is time that equally urgent attention was given to rationalising the plethora of incompatible national communications systems that bedevil all operations. This is a top priority for NGOs operating in crisis areas, too.

Mainly, though, the way forward has to be a hard slog to get Member States to pool their efforts and resources – all the way from the research laboratory, through equipment procurement programmes, to joint forces. The European Defence Agency was set up precisely to catalyse such cooperations – it makes no sense to cap its staff numbers at a mere 100. Heads of government need to lend a hand, and encourage defence establishments to do what does not come naturally to them by attaching strings to defence budgets – spend it jointly, or lose it. And the same goes for the defence industry – consolidation needs to be re-energised, especially in the land- and sea-systems sectors, by ‘summit’ meetings of defence industrial chiefs and government ministers.

Such an agenda would be readily achievable, if only the British would join hands with the French in pushing it. But 2008 is not 1998; and the glad confident morning of the New Labour government has declined into an apprehensive evening. Time, then, to pay attention to the noises off – and to reflect that it is not just Europe’s role in the world, or the security of Europe’s citizens, that depend on a stronger European defence – it is also the health of the transatlantic security relationship. 

This article also appeared on and, as well as in Dziennik (Poland), and E-Kathimerini (Greece).

Read our report entitled Re-energising Europe’s Security and Defence Policy, published on 29 July, 2008.

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


Senior Policy Fellow

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