ESDP: the British perspective

Article published on March 24, 2003
community published
Article published on March 24, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The current crisis over Iraq shows more than ever how hard it will ever be to have a "European voice".

While their governments fall out over Iraq, Europe’s citizens remain united by more immediate entertainment, like TV quiz shows. “The Weakest Link”, a British program where a team of contestants vote off the person they consider to have been the stupidest in each round – the weakest link of the title – has been translated and exported across most of the continent. As Tony Blair fails to convince anyone in Europe that war with Iraq is a good idea, while Donald Rumsfeld states that America doesn’t need him anyway, he must feel ganged up on in the same way as the quiz’s losers do. For the premier of a country that still vividly remembers ruling the waves it must be galling.

Britain currently seems to be out on a very long limb as far as security and defence policy is concerned. Europe as a whole is in a pickle over it. The EU does have a common position on whether and/or how there should be a war in Iraq – but can anyone remember what it is? The European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) obliges member states to “support the Union’s external and security policy actively and unreservedly in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity”, but most of them are too busy arguing at the UN and NATO to take any notice of that at the moment. Countries such as France and Germany not only disagree with the UK’s pro-war position, they’re also offended by the lack of “loyalty and mutual solidarity” that it shows. Does ESDP mean nothing to the British government?

Different things to different governments

The problem with ESDP, as with most other European policies, is that it can mean different things to different governments – and they can all be right. Its tortured processes try not to infringe anyone’s sovereignty or offend their neutrality, and still allow for collective decision making. The varying interpretations of ESDP’s scope and purpose depend on two things: internal politics and public opinion, and ideology. So what do these tell us about Britain’s perspective on ESDP?

Firstly, we must be clear that the ideology most dominant in UK security and defence policy is neo-realism. Neo-realism describes an international system where sovereign states compete using force (military or economic) to further their own interests. The British know the world runs on superior strength because that is how they used to run it. They have long memories, and it’s not enough now just to be relatively important. Their strong alliance with the current world hegemon, America, represents both a desire to run with the big shots, and a commitment to the belief that both Britain and the rest of Europe’s interests are best served by alliance with America. Not only that, they would be worst served by competition with it. So the UK’s guiding ideology is a little more nuanced than plain realist self-interest: it also involves a deep rooted faith in the value of multilateralism and cooperation as proactive problem solving mechanisms. If not, why did Blair bother persuading Bush to go to the UN in the first place?

It is of course the alliance with America, rather than the commitment to multilateralism, that is seen as creating the most ambiguity in Britain’s position towards ESDP. The transatlantic alliance comes in the shape of NATO, and the British government’s loyalty to it is as famous as it is irritating to some of its EU counterparts. But this loyalty does not in fact pose Britain any ideological problem on ESDP. It wants to keep as much sovereignty as possible, just as in general do other neo-realist thinking states such as France. This applies to all EU policies, not just security. The UK therefore advocates strongly the policy of subsidiary, that is, that nothing should be done at European level unless it can’t be done anywhere else. So why for example would the EU need to include a mutual defence clause in ESDP (as suggested by France and Germany) when all it’s non-neutral members are covered by Article 5 of NATO? Why would the EU want to interfere with national defence policies, when these are best carried out by national governments?

OK, so that last comment isn’t even on the agenda yet. That doesn’t stop the Eurosceptics from worrying about it. Like it or not, it’s the sceptics who tend to set the agenda in UK public opinion. The British people really are more concerned about protecting their sovereignty than about European integration. Why do we need a European army, they ask, when we have a perfectly good one already? The French might think that a Europe-wide army would be something to be proud of - but then the French keep MEPs shuttling between Brussels and Strasbourg once a month for the sake of pride in their expensive and otherwise useless parliament building. What good does any of it do Europe?

Britain, an attractive ally

The fact is that British public opinion is just not anti-American in the same way as much of the rest of Europe. It is frustrating to think that we would still rely on the US to get us out of a civil war, but developing defence capacity to rival NATO and America is not, in British opinion, a realistic option. The UK is Europe’s biggest military spender, and yet a recent Ministry of Defence (MOD) Policy Paper acknowledges that however good UK forces are, they’re not enough to take on anything bigger than the first (and still the only) Gulf War. The other choice is cutting defence and relying entirely on international agreements and institutions - but no European government would actually go that far.

The middle way, of course, in the MOD’s words, is “improving Europe’s ability to react in times of crisis”. That crisis may be a conventional threat, a humanitarian disaster or a need for peacekeeping operations: the key is rather that Europe’s capabilities need improving. We increasingly don’t have the technology or the levels of military spending to effectively defend ourselves if we had to – we can’t even intervene in relatively small scale operations such as Kosovo without US help.

In the UK’s view, improvement in European security and defence should mean the equal and mutual strengthening of both EU and NATO capabilities. If it does not, the military efforts of both organisations will struggle. Take the recent attempt of France, Germany and Belgium to effect an ‘EU’ position within NATO – in favour of peace and avoiding a ‘logic of war’ to the point of not preparing to defend an ally. They in fact split the alliance down the middle. It doesn’t make Europe look like an attractive ally to work with. And as we can see from the current UN crisis, if we are not attractive allies to work with, the US will do what it wants without us.

Three possible outcomes

There are three possible outcomes for ESDP. The first is that Europe builds capacity which is not well coordinated with NATO, politically or logistically, and both forces are weakened, trying and failing to keep up with the US. The second is that the EU specialises in the peacekeeping, humanitarian and nation-building expertise which is becoming the raison d’être of its foreign policy in general. It would coordinate with the US through NATO, but focus more on peace-creating than warmongering. It’s possible to imagine most of the European public being proud of such a stance. But Britain has a long memory of sending its brave troops out to set the world agenda: national pride in humanitarian missions is unlikely to match the strength of feeling that still exists in favour of a strong army and the dominant global voice that comes with it.

The third outcome is that both NATO and the EU are strengthened by ESDP, making Europe a global actor equal to anyone else, free to concentrate on peacemaking if it wishes, but also capable of making America hear its voice. Tony Blair’s vision is of the UK at the centre, the bridge between Europe and America that makes this possible. But he can’t do it alone. It only works if the rest of Europe pulls alongside him to build up European and NATO capacities equally. Teamwork in an atmosphere of mistrust and competing aims – it’ll sound familiar to viewers from Spain to Scandanavia. Will Britain be the winner or the weakest link?