Reshaping Europe's defence

Reshaping Europe's defence

Bulletin article
01 December 1998

All across Europe, politicians and diplomats are scratching their heads and asking the same question: when was the last time that Britain came up with such a constructive initiative on the future of the European Union? Tony Blair's ideas for strengthening Europe's defence identity, first revealed in October, have generated huge excitement - nearly all of it positive - across the continent. The Clinton administration has also reacted favourably.

By early December the British government had still not unveiled a detailed plan. But the essence of its thinking is clear and, for the British, revolutionary. British governments have long argued that the EU should keep out of defence, so that it would not needlessly duplicate what NATO does, undermine it or annoy the Americans. But Mr Blair has now decided that the EU could do more in defence without damaging NATO. In other words the British have accepted the thrust of the arguments put forward by France and Germany - and vehemently opposed by Britain - during the negotiation of the Maastricht and Amsterdam treaties.

Mr Blair has been struck by the incoherence and weakness of Europe's common foreign and security policy (CFSP) during the Kosovo crises. He believes that, on those occasions when the Americans do not want to get involved, the Europeans need to be able to run effective military missions themselves. That means building up Europe's capacity to deploy force rapidly, for example by buying more transport planes, and it means rethinking Europe's defence "architecture".

The British want to get rid of the Western European Union, a defence organisation of 10 EU members that sits uneasily between NATO and the European Union. Its members are treaty bound to defend each other from attack, but since it has a staff of only a hundred it delegates most of its military functions to NATO. The Amsterdam treaty allows the EU to use the WEU to carry out small-scale military missions, such as peacekeeping, on its behalf.

The British would allow the EU itself to control military operations. The CFSP should be more effective if the EU's ability to deliver force was more closely integrated with its diplomacy. One of the reasons why other countries sometimes do not take the EU's common policies seriously is that it cannot reinforce them with firepower.

How in practice might this EU defence capability work? Suppose the Americans did not want to join a peacekeeping operation to sort out a crisis in Macedonia. EU ministers would tell NATO to prepare a military mission. The North Atlantic Council, which consists of representatives of NATO governments - including America's - would authorise the use of NATO assets and the formation of a special command structure involving only Europeans (NATO agreed to the idea of European-only command structures for certain missions in 1996). NATO's deputy supreme commander, always a European, would be the commander-in-chief of the mission to Macedonia. He would report to the EU, which would take overall political responsibility for the operation.

Many awkward questions still have to be answered. Should the EU's new defence capability go to the "second pillar", the common foreign policy, or to a new fourth pillar? How would the EU's neutral members and those NATO countries not in the EU fit into these arrangements? And should the WEU merge with the EU, or be split between the EU and NATO? The former would give the EU the WEU's planning cell, satellite unit, and so on, so that it had - at least in theory - an embryonic capability to manage its own military operations; that would risk upsetting the United States. But the latter would put those operational units into NATO and thus risk annoying the French.

Some Europeans worry that, if the United States disapproved of an EU military operation, it might veto the use of NATO assets. But the Americans would have a strong incentive to keep the promise they have made not to wield such a veto: if they did, the Europeans would want to develop their military capabilities outside NATO.

Despite such difficult questions, there is a serious chance that the next time the EU revises its treaties, it will gain the competence to run military missions.

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