hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 21 September 2015

Groundhog Day in European Defence

Brussels and Oslo. 21 September. Winston Churchill once said, “True genius resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous and conflicting information”. This past week in Brussels and Oslo at two high-level conferences to discuss European security and defence I have seen the best and worst of elite Europe. Threats abound; Russian challenges in the Arctic/High North and its use of strategic maskirovka/ambiguous warfare to Europe’s east, ISIL and the collapse of the Middle Eastern state order to Europe’s south, cyber-penetration of a virtual Schengen, uncontrolled massive migration and lawlessness, strategic tensions with newly-powerful illiberal states, arms races and proliferation, American overstretch, state-threatening organised crime, and I could go on. However, the biggest threat comes from a strategically under-cooked elite Europe that only wants to see the world as they would like it to be not as it really is. The result is a Europe that is by and large bereft of strategic judgement and unable or unwilling to apply statecraft and a failed Brussels elite that is retreating steadily into the meaningless mantra of ‘ever more Europe’.

On Wednesday last I visited Planet Brussels to attend the magnificently-named European Defence Summit.  It was an excellent event organised by the Munich Security Conference and I was honoured to be present. However, I spent much of the day feeling like Bill Murray in that old film Groundhog Day. You know the one; each morning Murray awakes to find he is trapped in a nightmarish repeat of yesterday. 

For the past thirty years I have listened to the High Priests and Priestesses of Unionology calling for ‘ever more defence Europe’.  Now, I would not mind if such calls came from younger members of the Church of Unionology. After all, Brussels is built on large numbers of young people working in the name of ‘Europe’ for next to nothing in search of patronage that will they hope confirm them as members of said EU elite.  However, when it is the same old people saying the same old thing and nothing happens I am reminded of Einstein’s definition of insanity; repeating the same experiment but expecting different results. That is why group-think prevails in Brussels and healthy dissent is so frowned upon. Indeed, on some occasions I am almost crushed in the Brusssels rush of the young and ambitious to agree with the old and stupid.

Rather, Priesthood did what they always do when faced with a crisis; talked about how a future ‘Europe’ that will probably never exist might in future deal with such crises if in future (not now) such dangers ever intrude on their EU self-obsession. If you want to understand why Europeans are so crap at managing crises you need look no further.  Bill Murray might be stuck forever in yesterday, the Priesthood are forever stuck in a fantasy ‘tomorrow’.

Now, contrast the Summit with my meeting in Oslo. Late on Wednesday night I flew from Brussels to Oslo to address a meeting with my friend the impressive Norwegian Defence Minister Ine Erikson Soreide at another excellent event this time co-organised by the Norwegian Parliament and the Norwegian Atlantic Association. The speech she gave was quite simply the best speech I have heard for a long time by any serving defence minister.  Grounded firmly in reality the speech balanced strategy, politics and cost to present a vision of a Norway that is thinking seriously about how a small European state balances defence ends, ways and means. Indeed, as an example of a small state thinking big politics in a big world I have heard no better.    
The problem with ‘more defence Europe’ is as ever the set of political assumptions that are behind it.  The Priesthood believe the ‘finalitć’ of European defence to be a system of common security and defence that will ensure both efficiency and effectiveness though the creation of a singular political and security entity called ‘Europe’. However, that is simply not how security and defence works. It is the impracticable in pursuit of the unworkable.

Take the pooling and sharing of military assets.  Some marginal pooling and sharing makes sense if it is parallel with an effective system for loaning assets to those engaged in coalitions.  However, deep pooling and sharing which the Priesthood seek by removing sovereign choice effectively destroys the ability of a state to to choose which coalitions to join and how.  In other words, the very idea of ‘more defence Europe’ trades defence effectiveness for a false efficiency in pursuit of unrealistic politics at the expense of sound defence strategy.

That is why pooling and sharing is still born.  Yes, it may make sense for smaller EU member-states who will never have to really think about leading, organising or enabling (framework nation) variable coalitions of Europeans and non-Europeans.  Moreover, there are some very expensive systems such as satellites for which collective procurement makes sense because all states can use such systems by acting as intelligent customers without infringing sovereign choices over the use and utility of force.   However, collective procurement will only ever work for the likes of Britain, France and Germany system by system.

Europeans must also avoid false defence economies. At the European Defence Summit it was fascinating to see southern European defence manufacturers queuing up to support the Priesthood with the call for a single European procurement structure. Naturally, they talked the talk of innovation, economies of scale and security of supply. However, what they really wanted was a new form of protectionism in the shape of a single European defence procurement budget; the very antithesis of innovation, competition and value for taxpayer’s money.

Europe’s defence bottom-line is this; Britain, France and Germany as well as to a lesser extent Italy and Poland, may never be able to prevail alone in crises. However, they must all retain sufficient command autonomy and flexibility to enable and assure coalitions of the willing not just with other Europeans, but also with the US and partners the world over.  That is the single most salutary pol-strat lesson from the past thirteen years of pol-mil campaigning.

The EU certainly has a role to play in European defence not least in cyber-defence, critical national infrastructure protection, and societal resilience. However, because NATO is built on the assumption of collective coalition action in crises and collective defence rather than common action/defence the Alliance must and will always remain more important than the EU in the field of defence.  The trick will be to prevent the sovereignty-busting ambitions of Planet Brussels (NATO HQ is not actually in Brussels) from affecting the Alliance to the point of failure.

European defence highlights the dangerous contradiction to itself and others ‘defence Europe’ has become.  The specific problem is the relationship between the here and now and the then and beyond goal.  Europe’s elite are failing the here and now precisely because they deliberately (at least in Brussels) confuse the sound security and defence of Europe with ‘ever more Europe’ and the building of a European super-state. Indeed, the fruitless search for a truly ‘common’ security and defence policy actively prevents collective action and thus in turn provides an alibi for many EU member-states to avoid strategic judgement and statecraft.  Worse, it enables strategically-illiterate European politicians to defer vitally-need defence spending in favour of a fantasy defence union and thus in turn undermines NATO.

To paraphrase Churchill: The future security and defence of Europe will reside in the capacity of all Europeans to collectively evaluate uncertain, hazardous and conflicting information and then decide and act quickly on the appropriate course of action.  Such action will itself depend on firm collective political will, a willingness collectively to invest in the means to ensure desired outcomes, and a shared collective determination to stay the political and military course.

Russia and ISIL have revealed a Europe that is increasingly lawless and defenceless. However, it is not the likes of Russia or ISIL that is leading Europeans towards disaster, but small politics in a big world political leaders unable or unwilling to grip the big dark picture world in which Europeans live and thereafter apply strategic judgement and the principles of statecraft.

More European defence, yes please. More EU defence, no thanks.

Julian Lindley-French 

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