Alphen, Netherlands. 20 December. Looking through the usual empty guff about Europe’s role in the world last night’s Joint Statement on the Common Security and Defence Policy by EU leaders came down to how to afford a few unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and a few air-to-air refuelling aircraft. As a statement of the strategically-irrelevant it comes straight out of the ‘we only recognise as much threat as we can afford’ school of European appeasement. European leaders (as ever) avoided the real issues facing European defence: how to afford, generate and organise a full spectrum capability of military forces (affordability); where best to organise them (EU or NATO); and who has control over them (sovereignty)?
The affordability question goes to the very heart of Europe’s defence crisis. Europeans spend around €180bn/$246bn per annum on defence with much of it a chronic waste of European taxpayer’s money. Indeed, there are nineteen EU member-states that spend less than €4bn/$5.5bn per year and extremely badly whilst 90% of all defence-technological research in Europe is done by just three countries – Britain, France and Germany. Meanwhile, Russia aims to inject about €568bn/$775 billion by 2022 for new armaments and a more professional military whilst Beijing increased the Chinese defence budget by a further 10% in 2013 bringing defence expenditure close to 14% of GDP (Read this week’s Japanese National Security Strategy). In other words, if Europeans were in the real world they would realise that something radical must be done to afford Europeans twenty-first century defence. At the very least the smaller European nation-states must consider defence integration.
However, defence integration raises the second question; should the EU or NATO lead such an effort? Today, the indivisibility of European defence is a myth. Different states want different things from different institutions and invest accordingly. One reason for Europe’s military paralysis is that there are European federalists within the European Commission and beyond who see an opportunity to use Europe’s defence to further erode state sovereignty. Indeed, whilst the European Commission is absolutely right to warn about the inefficiency of the European defence industrial base it is utterly wrong to believe EU control would afford the European taxpayer a more competitive arms industry.
Worse, only Britain and France retain some commitment to maintaining warfighting power and thus an ability to work with US armed forces. The need to maintain transatlantic military cohesion has traditionally made NATO the locus for the generation of military power however hard France has tried to replace NATO with the EU. Sadly, NATO is a busted flush and faced with American disinterest and the Eurozone crisis many Europeans are now clustering around Germany and by extension Germany’s EU. However, Germany is caught in a history trap; the more powerful Berlin becomes politically the less military.
It is who has control over future European forces that is ultimately at the heart of Europe’s defence paralysis. The central paradox of European defence is that remove the sovereignty question and pragmatic progress would be far more likely towards a credible European force. However, whilst defence integration makes sense from the affordability angle from the utility of force angle it is it little short of alternative pacifism. The Benelux countries are a case in point. Belgium, the Netherlands and mighty Luxembourg are deepening defence co-operation but getting the three countries to agree over the actual use of a single force makes crisis management glacial…and thus oxymoronic.
Britain as ever in the EU these days is the outlier. In 1953 Winston Churchill in rejecting British membership of Europe’s first attempt at European defence integration said, “We are with them, but not of them”. On Wednesday in a London speech the British Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Houghton warned about the hollowing out of British armed forces by repeated defence cuts. One argument in in my January e-book “Little Britain? Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power” is this; if Britain does not offer a leadership alternative in Europe and properly invest in the influence powerful British armed forces would afford London the British could well in time have join the very European Army it fears.
There is one final irony over last night’s non-event. Fifteen years ago this month at St Malo Britain and France established a blueprint for EU defence that would have seen the development of a NATO-compatible capability that would have afforded the Union ‘…the capacity for autonomous action”. If anything Europeans are now further from autonomous action than ever and thus more reliant than ever upon the United States for their defence. However, the Americans will be busy this century and unless Europeans find a way to generate credible and useable strategic military power – be it organised through the EU or NATO - the real consequence of last night will be a Europe that is to all intents and purposes defenceless.