NATO’s 60th birthday bash this weekend was completely eclipsed by the G20, inevitably. Nevertheless, it was an important reaffirmation of the transatlantic alliance that defines our most successful and enduring of partnerships. But moves in Brussels to reconfigure military assets under the star spangled banner of the EU present a serious challenge to the organisation.
NATO arose in response to a clear military threat. In contrast, the nascent EU military is simply the natural extension of ‘ever closer union.’ It is entirely political. Why else would Brussels be so interested in process and so little exercised by defence deliverables? It seems that the state building psyche of Brussels demands more than flags, passports and a currency. After all, even the tiniest of nation states has an army of sorts.
Enter the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) and the defence clauses of the Lisbon Treaty that seek to legitimise the fledgling defence institutions of the EU, extend Qualified Majority Voting to defence and security matters and, most worrying of all, introduce an element of supra-national determination into an area that had previously been robustly intergovernmental.
Emboldened by the language of Lisbon, the European Parliament approved a report in January by the committee on foreign affairs under Karl von Wogau demanding an ‘integrated European Armed Force’, EU ‘strategic autonomy’, an ‘autonomous and permanent EU Operational Headquarters’ and something called ‘Synchronised Armed Forces Europe.’ What are we to make of all that?
Well, Eurosceptics are used to being accused of paranoia but a jaw-dropping briefing paper produced by the EU Directorate of General External Policies last month provides further insight into the mindset of the architects of ‘ever closer union.’ The document carries a map of the world with little EU flags pinned to the remaining overseas assets of EU members, overwhelmingly British and French. These, the authors, suggest have a ‘potential role’ in establishing an EU ‘forward presence’ to be coordinated by a ‘Special Representative for Geostrategy.’
What useful defence objectives do the authors have in mind? Because they have not defined the threat that they seek to deal with and their security deliverables remain opaque, all we are left with is the ghastly vision of little EU flags dotted across the globe.
Why should NATO be worried about the EU? After all, there have always been attempts to push the European military agenda. But they have failed because the institutions of the EU and its predecessors have been insufficiently mature to sustain any sort of EU-badged military formation. That is no longer the case.
The lynchpin of NATO is the transatlantic alliance. Big spending Uncle Sam, the world’s only superpower, has to date been content to massively underwrite the Article V insurance policy which too many Europeans are perfectly happy to benefit from yet unwilling to pay for.
Madeleine Albright was clearly disturbed by the step-change in Britain’s position on ESDP articulated by Tony Blair at the Anglo-French St Malo summit of 1998. Quite reasonably the US Secretary of State interpreted it as a tack away from the transatlantic alliance. So much so that she handed down her ‘three Ds’ without which America would take a dim view. NATO’s children could play together providing there was no decoupling from the US, no duplication of effort and no discrimination against non-EU NATO members.
Each enjoinder has in turn has been violated. But why would any sane government put such a beneficial arrangement with the US at risk?
Well, perhaps the EU might be a catalyst for improved endogenous European defence. But there are few signs that force building is on the agenda. The EU has created absolutely no new capability and spectacularly failed to increase European spending on defence. EU battle groups and military staffs are borrowed from the very same assets that nation states and NATO rely on. Its double counting is worse than a Gordon Brown budget statement.
For NATO as a task-based organisation what matters is what works but ESDP is a largely political benefit for which military outcomes are not the only measure of success. For example, an EU obsession with form over substance has seen the poaching of warships to create an EU naval squadron to tackle pirates off west Africa in preference to the inevitably more efficient support for existing NATO operations.
Should the EU have a defence identity at all? Well, it could carve a niche for itself at the softer end of the so-called Petersberg tasks that deal chiefly with peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance. NATO is not particularly well configured for them. Tragically, 21st century conflict has been characterised by the successful creation of space by military forces that has become a vacuum for want of the apparatus necessary to sustain peace and stability. But this conduit for EU states acting together appears as unattractive to the architects of ‘ever closer union’ as it is potential beneficial in terms of defence and security deliverables.
The debate about NATO’s role is as old as the organisation itself. But how much more should the defence academies of the alliance pour over the utility of a duplicative and wasteful configuration under the EU banner? Twenty years after the end of the Cold War it is right that we should ask what NATO is for. But if we are unclear this point, it seems strange from a military perspective that we should be creating a parallel outfit that would carry with it precisely the same uncertainties.
The battle lines were drawn by Liam Fox in the debate on the defence clauses of the Lisbon Treaty on 20 February 2008. Our antipathy towards its ESDP elements is clear and on the record. We have reinforced our position in committee, recently opposing the creation by the EU of headquarters arrangements that will parallel and weaken NATO.
The return of a Conservative government will be a welcome shot in the arm for NATO at 60 as Europe’s most significant player puts the brakes on a creeping EU military identity that offers little but risks so much.