The EU still hankers after its Potemkin army

In October 2002, the Irish people voted in a referendum to approve the Nice Treaty. It was not, however, the first time they had been asked. The previous June, the electorate had initially rejected the offer. This being the EU, they were told to vote again.

One of the critical concerns in play had been over the EU’s defence ambitions. This particular issue was buried in two ways. The first was to amend the Irish constitution, adding some minor parliamentary safeguards as well as a particularly ambiguous future opt-out. The second was to pretend there was no long-term threat at all. Writing to the Irish Times, the country’s Defence Minister Michael Smith declared,

“The EU is not engaged in the creation of a European army. Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality is in full conformity with the EU treaties and there is nothing in the Nice Treaty that changes this.”

He also pledged that, “Ireland will not participate in a common EU defence commitment unless the Irish people decide otherwise in a referendum.” That pledge will presumably now be tested.

The EU has been heading towards building an autonomous corporate defence identity for many years. This indeed was the original model for continental political integration, before French parliamentarians (wiser in those days) voted down the European Defence Community in 1954. This left the EEC as the fallback framework.

The legacy ambition was necessarily slow burn, accelerating only as the Soviet Union staggered and fell. But it inevitably became increasingly unambiguous, to the point of introducing the “Common Defence” permission into the Amsterdam Treaty. In the corridors of Brussels, the permissive constitutes a target. And so by 2016, pushing back against the shock of Brexit, all the major EU institutions generated shopping lists of where they saw defence integration heading.

The direction of travel was now unambiguous: you can review the reality here. It’s multiple tracked, covering doctrine, institutions, units, and industry. Some tracks are just going quicker than others.

And now again the engine’s just gone up a gear. Just as the EU institutions took advantage of 9/11 to push the stalled JHA agenda, the Ukraine crisis is putting political octane into defence integration. We already expected the proposals arising from the Conference on the Future of Europe to be seized upon. But now, on 21 March, EU foreign affairs and defence ministers sitting in a joint session approved the Strategic Compass, described as an “an ambitious plan of action for strengthening the EU’s security and defence policy by 2030”.

So, what is immediately on offer in this latest, 47 page, blueprint? Well, the full document is too ranging to comprehensively pull apart here. Let’s just pick out two salient themes.

The first is the ambitious language which abandons any attempt to mask the destination, talking of developing “a common strategic culture” and the need to “strengthen our unity and solidarity”. This is despite the text only intending to cover the next 5-10 years of development. Hard power is intrinsically and expressly here linked to soft power, everything from vaccine supply to maritime routes via space. It’s also connected by extension to the EU’s existing Mutual Defence and Solidarity clauses, Articles 42(7) and 222 TEU, which are openly heavily reinforced in their intent (notwithstanding the NATO alternative).

It is perfectly clear what is happening with the drive to generate “a common sense of purpose”, and it is quite a clever approach – this is about the psychology of creating an EU defence identity, a go-to place with a functioning OODA Loop capable of deploying assets in support of EU interventionism. Strikingly it is “the EU” whose absence from the world stage has been leaving gaps for malign powers to fill, overlooking the existence let alone work of national capitals.

A second feature is the scope and scale of the project, meaning that buying into any piece of the jigsaw carries wider implications. The old battlegroup concept is now expanded into deploying (and it later infers, sustaining through roulement) a brigade, on short notice, into a hostile environment. Operational commanders are to have more assets, more money, and more command autonomy. They will have opportunities to train on EU-flagged military exercises. There’ll be more EU strategic intelligence and cyber. The EU will be the hub for R&D into next generation frontline assets for all services. There’s a potentially significant commitment to expanding the European Peace Facility, which is described in terms mirroring early US support to South Vietnam. 

On top of that, there will be greater coordination of maritime deployments, including port calls (long used by navies as soft power) but also very significantly a more centralised management of where platforms are deployed. This includes increasing the corporate EU presence on trade routes. A new feature is “EU air security operations”, including air support, rescue and evacuation, surveillance and disaster relief, all of which is a clear handrail to a strategic EU air command. All of this will be tied in with disaster relief through the civilian CSDP Compact (it’s not stated how third party agencies will relate, but we can predict the EU is ultimately intended to be the clearing partner of preference). Naturally, FRONTEX, maritime surveillance and border management also form a part of the interrelated net. Anyone who can remember the draft Common Maritime Policy will be able to predict the wider policy ripple effect meant to follow next.

In the middle of all this sits the Commission’s vast procurement ambitions, chasing ‘common kit’ built by a pared-down and collectivised common defence industry. Whence the aspiration to invent, amongst other items, a new tank that would be a “next-generation capability for the Union” (note again attitudinally: not a capability for the member state buying them). Intriguingly, the Commission is to encourage this through several forms of direct and indirect subsidy including a proposed VAT waiver. Quite how this matches WTO competition obligations remains to be seen, and this also applies to its new pledges over safeguarding strategic supply chains which hints at a new strand of protectionism.

This landscape is all precisely as Eurosceptics predicted. It is one of continued gradual political integration, with the EU institutionally at its strategic and operational core.

How should the UK react to these developments? With distance. The closer the UK affiliates to any strand of the web, the harder it will be for the UK to defend its real interests – bilateralism, NATO, and multilateral cooperation away from EU bodies (avoiding especially the procurement trap). It should focus in on what will be offered for Japan liaison – no ambition there for integration – and view that as the borderline. What it should not do is follow the advice now being offered by the Conservative European Forum, signing up to various EU agreements without paying any heed to the wider geography of EU Defence Union. But then, the CEF regrets Brexit and wishes it would quietly go away.

There’s another angle here. “We face a competition of governance systems accompanied by a real battle of narratives,” reads the Strategic Compass. Well, yes – and that still for now still includes a democratic battle within the EU over these policies themselves.

The Danish are having a referendum on 1 June over whether they should drop their cherished defence opt out. Its government wants to; many members of the public quite rightly are looking at the direction of travel and are not nearly quite so convinced. Especially as the Strategic Compass is touted as generating a “quantum leap forward”, with the aim of “a stronger and more capable European Union that acts as a security provider” (the verb being in the singular).

For their part, the people of Ireland too may yet get the referendum they were pledged two decades ago. They should, given this latest text. The Strategic Compass also lists the objective of managing a “fair share of contributions to military missions and operations”, which implies a threat to neutrals. But despite five post-Brexit years of FBPE hashtaggers with Irish passports pontificating about democracy and plebiscites, it seems somehow doubtful that they will be given the chance.

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