No One Wants to be Left Behind in the Military ‘Slow Lane’

Article published on Feb. 2, 2004
community published
Article published on Feb. 2, 2004

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

European defence is moving at two speeds. Will the hard core manage to impose its wish for a real European army (operational and with a unified command structure independent of NATO?

In the past the EU’s top priority has at various points been the internal market, the euro or the free movement of people in a Europe without borders. Now the top priority for the next few years is a common defence policy. And just as happened before, there’s every chance that it will be achieved in a staggered or two-speed process – one group of countries more able to go ahead, taking the first steps in the project before the other, less prepared countries try to join in later.

The problem gets a little complicated when it comes to European defence. It’s not just a problem of “speeds” in terms of the different capacities of each of the countries, but also one of “direction”. Each of the Member States has its own idea of the kind of defence structure which should be set up.

This second obstacle is more of a political one as it touches on the very heart of what States are all about – security and defence. At the heart of the Union there are three broad types of country – those with a Europeanist leaning, those with an Atlanticist leaning and those which are traditionally neutral.

Various speeds, various directions

Both questions surfaced during the preparation of the draft European Constitution. This last year has been a very turbulent one as regards the establishment of Europe’s own defence structure. This is because it coincided with the draft Constitution and because it was inevitably affected by the divisions that emerged at the heart of the Union due to the war in Iraq. Thus, the final definition of what would be the specific defence structure in the Constitution, with its methods and phases (the so-called “speeds”) was decisively influenced by the strategic interests of the countries (what we define as “directions”).

In April last year four of the six founding Member States met in a controversial mini-summit revolving around the reinvigorated Franco-German alliance. The Atlanticist-leaning countries, closer to Washington’s position (completely opposed to the proposal of an EU Security and Defence policy which would marginalise NATO), immediately rejected the intentions of the meeting (the Spanish foreign minister described it as the “gang of four” afterwards), which went far beyond what was acceptable for the US and the UK – as it proposed setting up a Joint General Headquarters in Belgium which was completely separate from NATO.

The two positions or two “speeds” were clearer than ever against this background. On the one side, France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg (Eurocorps hard core), which advocated a Constitution with a defence project for a vanguard of countries and on the other, Spain and Poland, strategically supported by the UK, which demanded that the structure - at least initially - allowed all the Member States in. ‘At least initially’ because Sweden, Finland, Austria and Ireland, with their neutrality, were not comfortable that the project fitted in with their own Constitutions.

This lack of confidence in a real European army (operational and with a unified command structure independent of NATO) can also be seen in the marginalisation of the “weak Europe” in the project for the new European military transport plane AIRBUS A400M and in the simultaneous anchoring of Eastern Europe into the structures of the Atlantic Alliance and the EU.

The European armaments agency

Putting to one side the huge problem that could arise from having 25 such different armies (many of which are only token armies, others of which are nuclear powers), when the time comes to tackle common defence there will be a need to create an EU body that manages the military resources (currently wasted) of the Member States better. The real military capacity of the Union is estimated at 10 per cent of the US capacity, but the total military budget is 160 billion Euros per year, half that of the US.

That’s why the European armaments agency was set up in November – this will be the institution tasked with beginning the work of overall management to put a stop to the problem of the different “speeds”.

For the moment, France and Germany on one side and London on the other, have made compromises to reach a formula that all can agree on. In September 2003 they approved a text in which, to keep everyone happy, it says that “hopefully the 25 Member States can participate” in this sought-after military structure.

To do so, the Member States participating will have to fulfil “a level” to be agreed in terms of expenditure and operational capacity. Candidates will be admitted according to a qualified majority vote in Council, where it can be decided if a State “cannot take on the commitments” in which case it would be declined admission to the group. This underlines a two-speed defence but does not exclude anyone a priori, leaving both Spain and Poland satisfied.

So the draft Constitutional Treaty has achieved what nobody expected thanks to its variable geometry approach (it doesn’t rule anyone out from joining the defence structure). Setting in stone the “two-speed” Europe in terms of defence has proved to be very useful (it has been announced that the 25 will participate in the Armaments agency) and, when push comes to shove, no-one wants to be left behind in the slow lane.