The European Union Rapid Reaction Force, between NATO and a Common Foreign and Security Policy

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

Can Europe have military capacities outside NATO ?

Foreign policy is one of the most difficult areas in which cooperation can be achieved between nations. In particular, cooperation in security and defence matters immediately raises issues of national sovereignty. It has to accommodate differing historical traditions and to consider specific sensitivities and prejudices in public opinion. The two most prominent features of the nation-state since its invention two hundred years ago have been a unique and independent foreign and defence policy, pursued by every autonomous entity in the international system.

Back to the History

After World War II, the security and defence of the Western European states were organised within NATO. The Western European Union (WEU) which was founded in 1954 as the defence component of European integration, aimed at guaranteeing the control of Germany’s rearmament and enabling it to become a member of the Atlantic Alliance. Throughout the Cold War, the willingness of European Community members to expand integration beyond the economic and diplomatic fields was rather restrained because of the role that NATO and the United States played as guarantors of Western Europe’s security. But with the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991, the long standing direct threat to the security of Western Europe disappeared.

The objectives set by EU member states regarding the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) at the Treaty on the European Union (TEU) (otherwise referred to as The Maastricht Treaty) in 1992 were high. The Treaty called for a jointly formulated and implemented foreign policy in the line of the European “acquis communautaire”. Most importantly, the common policy shall consider a common defence policy, possibly leading to a common defence.

In the Maastricht Treaty, the WEU member states agreed on developing WEU as the European pillar of the Atlantic Alliance (NATO) and doing so in a way that would complement the activity of NATO. But it soon became apparent that the Treaty was politically and militarily insufficient as a basis for the European Union to meet the increasing challenges in international relations. At the Cologne European Council in June 1999, EU leaders agreed that "the Union must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed by credible military forces, the means to decide to use them, and the readiness to do so, in order to respond to international crises without prejudice to actions by NATO". Furthermore, at the European Council in Helsinki in December 1999, the so-called Helsinki Headline Goal was established, setting amongst others the following two targets. Firstly, co-operating voluntarily in EU-led operations, Member States must be able, by 2003, to deploy within 60 days and sustain for at least 1 year military forces of up to 50,000-60,000 persons capable of the full range of tasks stated in Article 17 of the Treaty on European Union. Secondly, new political and military bodies and structures will be established within the Council to enable the Union to ensure the necessary political guidance and strategic direction to such operations, while respecting the single institutional framework.

A move towards military independence

The Nice European Council in December 2000 approved the establishment of three new permanent political and military bodies, the standing Political and Security Committee (PSC), the European Union Military Committee (EUMC) and the European Union Military Staff (EUMS). Following a Capabilities Improvement Conference in November 2001, the European Council at Laeken declared in December 2001 that "through the continuing development of ESDP, the strengthening of its capabilities, the creation of the appropriate structures, the Union is now able to conduct some crisis-management operations. The Union will be in a position to take on progressively more demanding operations, as the assets and capabilities at its disposal continue to develop”.

Therefore, it is evident that there has been a clear pattern of enhancement and integration of a common defence strategy and a move towards a certain amount of military independence for the EU during the last ten years. But the European Union is quick to remind everybody that “NATO remains the basis of the collective defence of its members and will continue to play an important role in crisis management”. The development of a European Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) will “lead to a genuine strategic partnership between EU and NATO in the management of crises with due regard to the two organisations` decision-making autonomy. EU Military structures will be separable but not separate from the NATO. The aim is that there should be no unnecessary duplication”.

But the most important question for the EU’s autonomy is how much is its political sovereignty depended upon the relationship between the military structures of the EU and NATO. Historically a nation-state or a federation has always used its military capabilities in order to project its political, economic and geopolitical interests throughout the globe. The perfect example of this is the US which has used its military might in numerous occasions to pursue its interests in the world. The US knows that its first foreign policy aim is to make sure no other entity in the international system is able to challenge its political or military superiority in the future. One of these potential future challenges could come from the European Union, if it manages to become a completely autonomous player politically and militarily in the international arena. This is the reason why the US was trying to restrict the EU RRF’s operational capabilities in December 2001 using Turkey’s ‘vital national interests’ as an excuse. The argument at the time was that firstly the EU would not be able to use the NATO structures and secondly Turkey would have to take part in the design of any military operation carried out by the RRF when this operation takes place in geographical areas where there are vital national Turkish geopolitical interests.

NATO bound to disappear?

Despite all the talk of ‘close cooperation’ and the carefully crafted diplomatic language between the EU and NATO, officials from both organisations know very well that there might be a point in the future when the EU might become politically and economically powerful enough to seize the historical opportunity to replace its collective security now organized within NATO with a completely self-governing European military force. In that case NATO would become irrelevant and dissolve. But then one would have to question whether the creation of a new security super-bloc, namely the EU, is desirable and whether another rivalry between two imperial powers, the US and the 25 member state EU, is something to be sought after.

Maybe the point in time when the EU will become politically and militarily independent of the US and NATO is not as far away as we think it is. President Chirac’s stance on the second UN Security Council resolution on the issue of Iraq’s disarmament could be the first indication of a sovereign political EU stance on the most important aspect of international relations, namely security. The new constitution of the European Union will greatly enhance the integration process and the incorporation of ten new members and possibly two more by 2007, will also increase the security of the union by furthering the geopolitical control of the European continent. These two factors will definitely increase the EU’s status and lee-way as an international organisation. What will the EU members states and the rest of the world make out of it remains to be seen in the short and long term developments in the international arena.