Proposals for greater defence cooperation in the EU have proliferated in the wake of the Brexit referendum result.
Media outlets have reported on a French-German paper, intended for discussion by EU leaders (less the UK) in Bratislava later this month. This, the most serious of such proposals, sets out detailed recommendations for reinvigorating the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy. It follows hot on the heels of a call by some of the Visegrad states for an EU army and a suggestion by the Italian foreign and defence ministers to establish a defence union to respond to terrorism. Jean-Claude Juncker, never normally one to shy away from promoting more European integration, spoke with some restraint of the need for common European assets and a headquarters in his 2016 State of the European Union address to the European Parliament.
Behind these proposals lies the idea that the UK has unhelpfully resisted greater military cooperation inside the EU. Following the Brexit result, the remaining 27 member states can power ahead to develop the defence union they have always wanted. Germany's defence minister Ursula Von der Leyen, was particularly critical, claiming that, “Britain consistently blocked everything that had Europe written on it … European Medical Command, even that would have been impossible because [of the word] ‘European’”
While this is by no means a fair or complete picture of the UK’s role, there is some truth here. After an enthusiastic, but brief flirtation with EU defence in the late 1990s - hatching with France what we know today as CSDP – the UK soon reverted to being a reluctant player. New leaders were less enchanted with the EU, while the 11th September 2001 was a defining moment in swaying the UK back to its traditional transatlantic focus. Today, while UK defence expenditure is a little over 26%, its investment expenditure almost 30%, and its military personnel 11% of the respective EU totals, less than 5% of EU troops deployed on EU military missions are British.1
The UK, though, is not the only member state to be wary of more defence in the EU. Several others, including Estonia, while broadly supporting the idea of a CSDP - as, to be fair, does the UK - are variously fearful that defence arrangements in the EU will weaken NATO’s primacy and discourage the continued engagement of the US in European security, that duplication of military structures will be a drain on limited resources, that governments will lose control over defence to Brussels, and that European nations’ incurable sluggishness in defence will mean that EU arrangements will, in any case, amount to very little. With the UK no longer beating the drum for prudence, these member states will need to speak louder if their case is to be made. It is perhaps a good time to (re)consider where the red lines lie.
An ‘EU army’, as proposed by some of the Visegrad countries, is clearly out of the question. The term is so undefined, and at the same time so potentially vast in scope, as be virtually meaningless. It is an unfortunate and provocative political shorthand that draws attention from the very real issue of building credible military capability, step-by-step, through multinational efforts. France and Germany have several far more careful proposals in this respect. They suggest that the Eurocorps should be strengthened and that the deployability of the battlegroups – the EU’s so far untested rapid entry units – should be improved. They also propose developing or improving specific multinational capability packages, in areas such as air-to-air refuelling, remotely piloted vehicles, strategic transport, medicine and situational awareness (the latter potentially offering great benefits in the Baltic Sea region). These are capabilities that individual nations struggle to provide alone – the benefits of collaboration are very evident. Provided this capability, or its national components, is also available to NATO – and there is no indication that it will not be – there is little reason not to fully support such initiatives.
The Italian ministers explicitly rule out a European army and make clear that the “kind of European Defence Union” they are proposing would be available to NATO too. However, they also propose that this Union should initially be open only to a few member states – perhaps the original founding members. The founding members include Belgium (defence expenditure 0.85% of GDP), Italy itself (1.11%), and Luxembourg (0.44%),2 suggesting that this might not be the most appropriate entry criterion. More seriously, and surely a red line, while there is nothing wrong with projects that do not involve all member states, solidarity (a word, reminded Juncker in his State of the European Union speech, that appears 16 times in the EU treaties) would be quickly damaged by projects that are not at least open to all member states.
But the proposal likely to be most immediately contentious – made explicitly in the French-German paper, but certainly supported by other member states – is the one to create a permanent EU headquarters to plan and conduct operations. This idea has cropped up periodically since the very start of CSDP and the UK has tirelessly taken the lead in blocking it under the mantra of ‘no duplication’.
Such a headquarters would indeed be at least a partial duplication. The EU is already able, through the Berlin-plus arrangements, to call on NATO headquarters, notably Allied Command Operations, for the planning and conduct of its operations. And it has five national operation headquarters, including at present the UK’s Permanent Joint Headquarters, declared to it for the same purpose. We should also be clear that any EU headquarters would most likely not be available to NATO. First, because NATO already has plenty of planning capacity to which it would clearly give preference. Second, because any EU headquarters would not only be responsible for planning military operations, but also civilian operations and the civilian aspects of civil/military operations, which would be of little interest to the Alliance. Should this be a red line?
The ‘no duplication’ mantra has its origins in the earliest days of CSDP, when Madeleine Albright led the US charge in ensuring that the fledgling arrangements would not damage the transatlantic link. Almost twenty years later, America wants Europe to stand on its own two feet and is not threatened by the idea of CSDP – quite the opposite. As regular CSDP commentator Sven Biscop puts it, “Washington is now actively promoting at least regional European strategic autonomy … Under which flag they do it, the US does not care, as long as they do it”.
If the Americans do indeed no longer care, the issues are operational effectiveness and affordability, rather than big politics. Supporters of expanding the EU’s role in crisis management often point to its ability to draw on a wide range of civilian and military instruments for this purpose, which gives it an edge over NATO in many situations. If the EU is to persuade the US that Europe is a reliable partner in security matters, and that America in turn should be ready to remain the ultimate guarantor of European security, it needs to take on crisis management in its neighbourhood, alone, and it needs to succeed. Operations need to be properly planned and run and there is a case to be made that this will require a different kind of headquarters from those available through Berlin-plus – one in which civilian and military aspects can be properly coordinated. Such a headquarters need not be large (the European Union Naval Force Mediterranean, for example, is run from Rome by a staff of 175). Mechanisms might also be designed for efficient manning, for example, a skeleton staff to be augmented during times of crisis. The devil, as ever, will be in the detail. But under watchful eyes, it ought to be possible to develop something that satisfies both the more integrationist member states – who will continue to return to this question – and the more conservative. It is time to retire the ‘no duplication’ mantra.
1 Percentages are for EDA member states – i.e. the EU less Denmark. Sources. EDA: defence expenditure, 2015 estimates; defence investment and personnel, 2014 figures. Global Peace Operations Review: deployed personnel, 2014 figures.
2 Source. NATO, 2016 estimates.