Defending European defence in partnership with NATO, strengthening the EU's mili

Defending European defence in partnership with NATO, strengthening the EU's military muscle is the right idea

Opinion piece (The Wall Street Journal)
Tomas Valasek
09 December 2008

Ten years ago in St. Malo, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac launched the European security and defence policy, or ESDP. They had the right idea: The European Union needs a defence arm if it is to play a global role, and with the demand for peacekeepers rising, ESDP could give a needed boost to the efforts of NATO and the United Nations. Or at least that was the theory. In reality, ESDP did not work very well for much of its first decade because until recently EU countries could not agree on its very purpose.

For many years after its St. Malo beginnings, the initiative was beset by a conflict between two driving visions. Mr. Chirac saw ESDP primarily as a way to lessen U.S. influence in Europe; so did, to varying degrees, the governments of the day in Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. For his part, Mr. Blair - and like-minded leaders in The Hague and Central Europe - wanted more European defences for a completely different reason: They worried that the U.S. was not interested enough in the security of Europe. They wanted ESDP to fill the void in defence capabilities that America's post-Cold War military disengagement from Europe was creating.

Each impulse drove EU defence policy in a slightly different direction. Those who feared that the U.S. would become less engaged in Europe, as Mr. Blair did, wanted the EU to focus on increasing Europe's military strength while keeping a strong link to the U.S. through NATO. Those who shared Mr. Chirac's desire to see less U.S. involvement in European security sought instead to challenge NATO by building an alternative European military bureaucracy, or by launching "flag planting" EU missions in Africa and elsewhere.

The first 10 years of ESDP have been largely a success for the Chirac group: a triumph of institution-building over military capabilities. The EU has created numerous military agencies - the EU military staff, the European defence Agency, the European Security and defence College - and launched some two dozen missions under the EU flag. But most of those missions were small, some involving only a handful of people. And only a minority of the missions involved military forces; most focused on policing or restoring the rule of law. Meanwhile, Europe's defence budgets have continued to shrink. Only a handful of European governments, including Britain, France and Greece, spend more than 2% of GDP on their militaries. And that was before the financial crisis, which will almost certainly depress defence spending still further.

Critics in Britain and elsewhere will be tempted to dismiss ESDP as an empty exercise, but that would be wrong. The civilian missions have been important, too, since most conflict resolution today requires not just military forces but a blend of civilian and armed forces. The military missions may have been few but some were quite complex - such as the one in Chad, where 3,400 troops from 19 European nations distribute humanitarian aid and protect refugees fleeing from fighting in Sudan. Perhaps most important, the EU has become a more strategic actor thanks to ESDP. It thinks about the outside world a lot more than it used to before St. Malo. When trouble breaks out on or around the Continent, most Europeans now want the EU to act. That is vastly different from the early 1990s, when Europe prevaricated while people in Bosnia died.

Building more military capabilities will be the challenge for the next decade. Fortunately, EU member states are now in broad agreement on this point. The ideological differences that plagued ESDP in its first 10 years are being erased, for two reasons.

First, the politicians most associated with pushing ESDP as an alternative to NATO - Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder - have been replaced by Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, who are far more pragmatic about cooperating with the U.S. Barack Obama's victory in the American presidential election will further accelerate trans-Atlantic rapprochement. The urge among European governments to build up more EU defence institutions to marginalize NATO - and, by extension, the U.S. - is weakening.

Second, the EU is becoming a victim of its own success. The more military missions Europe runs, the more exposed its military weaknesses become. The Chad mission, while impressive in its size and ambition, suffered embarrassing delays when EU military planners could not find enough transport helicopters. Russia ended up lending a few.

So, EU member states are converging around a new focus on capabilities. France, too, is playing down the need for more institutions, such as an EU operational headquarters. Instead, President Sarkozy has used his EU presidency to launch plans to upgrade Europe's military helicopters and to pool Europe's transport aircraft. He also plans to reintegrate France into NATO's military commands, further healing relations between the EU and the alliance.

Little improvement on the capability front will happen in the short term. defence budgets will probably drop further as the economic crisis bites. But the financial crunch will force governments to think about how effectively they use their defence money.

At the moment, much defence spending in Europe goes to national bureaucracies and military staffs, as well as national industrial champions. To get more equipment for the money they do have to spend, European governments need to be less protectionist and buy the best available equipment for the lowest price, no matter where it was made. That is the direction in which Brussels is nudging the member states: The European Commission has proposed a basket of new laws that would make it more difficult for governments to discriminate against other defence suppliers from within the EU.

Ten years on, ESDP is still the right idea. It has suffered from European disagreements on the role of the U.S. and NATO, so it has not generated the capabilities its supporters hoped it would. But most EU governments agree that the next 10 years of ESDP must be about strengthening Europe's military muscle. Now they need to make the political difficult choices, such as pooling parts of national militaries or abandoning preferential treatment of national champions, that can bring about more efficiency. Barring unlikely increases in defence budgets, efficiency is the only way to strengthen ESDP.