Politique Commun

Who cares about EU defense policy?

06/05/2012 | by Daniel Keohane

Category: Security, Europe

Traditionally, France has been the most vocal cheerleader for l’Europe de la dèfense. With the French presidential election underway it seems a good time to ask: who cares about EU defense policy?

Even the head cheerleader has not found much to salute for a while. The common security and defence policy of Europe? It is dead,” lamented the French foreign minister Alain Juppé to Le Monde during the build-up to the Libya war last year. Juppé’s despair is backed up by the fact that only one new EU operation has been deployed since 2009, compared with 23 from 2003 to 2008.

Officials from the European External Action service—the EU’s foreign service—in Brussels point out that three new EU operations will be deployed this year: to South Sudan to protect Juba airport; to Niger to train gendarmerie for countering people and drug trafficking in the Sahel; and to develop coastguards in Puntland/Somaliland for tackling piracy around the Horn of Africa. But these new operations are relatively small compared with past missions. Ultimately it is up to the 27 EU governments, not the EEAS in Brussels, to invigorate CSDP.

Which brings us back to the seemingly wearied invigorator-in-chief. Despite notable successes during France’s EU presidency in 2008—such as leading the international response to the Georgia war and launching the EU’s first naval operation off Somalia to counter pirates—Paris was disappointed by its EU cohorts. For one, Paris struggled to convince other member-states to contribute to a refugee protection operation in Chad, which meant the French defense ministry supplied most of the troops and equipment. For another, the Quai d’Orsay did not get the diplomatic quid pro quo it had hoped for the NATO rentrée (especially from EU-hostile London), namely agreement to create a proper EU headquarters for operational planning (the EU has a tiny "operations centre," which is coordinating its efforts in the Horn of Africa).

The Quai d’Orsay has since made a number of joint proposals with Germany and Poland to strengthen EU defense policy. But these ideas seem to receive less attention in the French defense ministry than before because Germany and Poland did not participate in the Libya campaign, diminishing their worth as military partners. If other larger member states cannot be relied upon, what is the value of the EU as a vehicle for common defence policies? As President, Hollande may wish to re-emphasize the importance of EU defence policy, not least to differentiate himself from the "American" policies of President Sarkozy. But it is hard to tell. There has been little discussion and no enthusiasm for the subject during the election campaign.

A number of other EU governments do care about EU defence policy, such as Belgium, Finland, Poland, and Sweden. But these are not the players that France can team up with to revive Europe’s defense policy. Germany, of course, is such a player—or should be. But for Germany the issue seems to be not so much the EU and/or NATO, but the use of military force. Even if it is one of the largest troop contributors to NATO peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo, it is no secret that Berlin has been uncomfortable about using force to solve international problems. This has translated itself into strong German support for developing the civilian dimension of CSDP, but with concomitant less interest in contributing to EU military operations.

The Palais de l’Élysée has re-ignited the entente cordiale with the UK—the only other EU member state with similar military capabilities and strategic culture. London and Paris signed a bilateral treaty to cooperate much more closely on defense matters only months before they led the Libya war. However, the UK lost interest in the credibility of an EU defense policy after the splits over the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (and some would say that, apart from then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, most of the British political elite were not that enthusiastic before 2003 either). Atlanticist London warmly welcomed the French rentrée to NATO in 2008, and British officials are keen on the potential for Anglo-French defense cooperation.

In some ways the story of EU defense policy has always been a tale of two cities; Paris and London agreed an accord at St. Malo in 1998 that begat the EU’s defense policy at the Cologne summit in 1999. But Franco-British cooperation may no longer benefit the EU directly, since their current collaboration will proceed on a strictly bilateral basis for the time being. To paraphrase George Orwell: currently EU defense is down in Paris, out in London and neglected in Berlin. And it is hard to see how EU defense policy can succeed unless it is up in Paris, accepted in London, and embraced in Berlin.

DANIEL KEOHANE is head of strategic affairs at FRIDE.

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