EU must co-ordinate its defence needs

EU must co-ordinate its defence needs

Opinion piece (The Guardian)
Clara Marina O'Donnell
15 August 2010

Most European countries are making drastic cuts to their defence spending. Several, including Britain, are contemplating giving up significant chunks of their military equipment. So far, governments have made no serious attempts to coordinate their cuts. Yet significant unco-ordinated reductions in military capabilities across Europe will further undermine the ability of Europeans to take part in international military deployments. To minimise the damage, Britain must consult closely with its European allies during its current strategic defence review, and encourage its partners to do the same.

Limited defence budgets over the years have already hampered Europe's ability to perform in conflicts ranging from the Balkans to Congo and Afghanistan. Today, the severe fiscal pressures created by the economic crisis are leading to some of the biggest cuts in defence spending in decades, including among the largest European countries.

France will slash €3.5bn from its defence budget between 2011 and 2013. Germany is planning savings of around €9bn over the next four years and is considering shrinking the size of its army by 40%. The British defence budget, which already suffered from a gaping deficit before the economic crisis, faces cuts of up to 20% over the next four years. The Treasury has already told the Ministry of Defence that it will have to pay for Trident's renewal. As a result, defence planners are considering sacrificing up to half of Britain's fast jets, among other things.

An obvious way to soften the blow of defence cuts would be for Europeans to co-operate more in developing and maintaining their defence capabilities – be it through more collaborative procurement, more common maintenance and even joint ownership of certain assets.

Officially, governments have been committed to tighter co-operation in defence for years. But in 2008, only 20% of defence procurement in the EU was done jointly. Many European countries still maintain their own naval and land defence industries. And ministries of defence often deploy separate logistics efforts, even when their military forces are fighting side by side.

Across Europe, the fiscal pressures have led to new calls for more joint efforts in defence, including in the UK. In early 2010, when the Labour party was still in office, the MoD argued that Britain should explore pooling some of its assets with its European allies. The new defence secretary, Liam Fox, has repeatedly stressed the need to work more closely with European countries which are committed to defence, in particular France.

Yet European governments are currently planning their defence cuts with little consultation among themselves. In July, France and Germany set up an informal working group to reflect on possible joint savings. Britain has asked some of its allies, in particular the US, whether they have any preferences regarding possible cuts in its military capabilities. But the UK should do more.

Firstly, the government should ask to join the informal working group between France and Germany. The three biggest European players in defence should discuss possible savings together. Secondly, notwithstanding the tight deadline for the strategic defence review (which is due in the autumn), Britain should seek the input of all its European partners – both in relation to the defence cuts they are considering, and to areas of possible convergence. And the UK should encourage its allies to seek a similar input when drafting their defence plans.

The obstacles which have hampered closer European defence co-operation in the past will not disappear. Some industrial collaboration will remain impossible because of diverging technical requirements, incompatible procurement cycles or disagreements between governments on how to divide the work. Governments could also shy away form pooling their capabilities out of concern that their partners could block the use of a shared asset in the future.

But at the very least, extensive consultations among ministries of defence will allow governments to co-ordinate their cuts. European countries are nearly all members of Nato and the EU. For years the smaller states have only envisaged undertaking combat operations as part of coalitions with their allies. This is increasingly the case for the larger countries too, including France and the UK. Governments must start doing their defence planning accordingly.