European Union discussions on defence cannot be separated from other divisive issues such as Iraq, enlargement, transatlantic relations, the economy, the new constitution and the development of a common foreign and security policy. They have exposed rifts between ‘Old’ Europe and ‘New’ Europe – and caused deep concern in Washington. But, as Charles Grant reports, these discussions are an important step towards increasing Europe’s influence on international affairs

Discussions over European defence in recent years have united and divided the continent. When UK prime minister Tony Blair and French president Jacques Chirac first proposed the idea of a European Union role in defence, in December 1998, the rest of the EU followed their lead in trying to establish a rapid-reaction force of 60,000 troops.

But during 2003, arguments over whether to support the war on Iraq, and on the creation of an EU military headquarters, split the Union down the middle. Then at the end of the year an agreement between Britain, France and Germany suggested that European defence would again become a unifying factor.

There is little point in Europe having a defence policy unless it already has a foreign policy. These days, for most EU countries defence is not about defence against attack.

It is about being able to collaborate with allies in projecting military power, to carry out a humanitarian mission, to keep the peace, to intervene in a conflict or to topple a bad and dangerous regime.

The deployment of troops on such missions, when they come under an EU brand, makes sense only if there is a common EU foreign policy to promote.

So a crucial question for the future of European defence is whether a European Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) is viable. The conventional wisdom is that Europe has made little progress in this area, that Iraq exposed profound divisions among the Europeans and that a common European foreign policy is little more than a joke.

Broad consensus

The truth is rather different. In fact the European countries agree on most of the key issues of foreign policy, Iraq being an exception. They agree on Iran, where they support a policy of engagement rather than a policy of isolation as observed by the United States.

They agree on the Middle East peace process, where the European Union is part of the ‘Quartet’ (alongside the United Nations, the United States and Russia) in favour of the ‘road map’.

They agree on all the arms control treaties and agreements, including those that the United States has rejected. They agree on the future of the Balkans, on the Kyoto protocol, on the International Criminal Court and much else.

Therefore the idea that Europe should develop its own defence policy, as a means of supporting its foreign policy, is not in itself absurd.

Nevertheless, the arguments over Iraq did expose a major fissure in the European Union – one that, so long as it persists, makes it hard to develop an effective foreign or defence policy.

This fissure is over how to respond to US power. So-called New Europe – Britain, Spain, Italy and the east Europeans – is inclined to be sympathetic to US foreign policy, while Old Europe – France, Germany and their allies – tends to oppose US policies.

So long as this rift remains, transatlantic relations will be fraught – the United States will oppose European integration, and that in turn will increase European hostility. The Europeans will find it harder to construct a more united external identity.

Transatlantic relations will consist of a series of bilateral relations between the United States and its European allies. There will be no meaningful partnership between the United States and the European Union and the result will be a weaker west.

The rift among the Europeans over how to deal with the United States cannot be overcome unless the British and French governments moderate their positions. The French have long wanted a strong CFSP that is capable of standing up to the United States.

They have argued that the long-term goal should be partnership with the United States, but that the European Union can only achieve respect in Washington by being prepared to say no to American policies.

Meanwhile the British have seen the CFSP as a means of turning the European Union into a more useful partner for the United States, when it seeks to sort out the world’s problems. They believe that European and American interests are often coincidental, and that public criticism of the United States will diminish European influence in Washington.

So the British and the French need to work out a rapprochement over how to deal with the United States, and on their visions of the CFSP – or the European Union will never develop a strong foreign and defence policy.

The rift deepens

However, an initiative by France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg – meeting in Brussels at the end of April 2003 – widened the fissure between New and Old Europe.

The leaders of these four countries agreed on rough plans for their own defence organization, including an EU operational planning staff at Tervuren, a suburb of Brussels.

They argued that if, as the 15 EU countries have agreed, the Union should be able to conduct autonomous military operations, the system will need its own operational planners.

But the governments involved were the same four that had blocked Nato aid for Turkey in January and February 2003. That the ring-leaders of the anti-war camp should try to set up a core European defence organisation, with its own operational planning staff, had an obvious message to American, British, Spanish, Italian and east European eyes.

This was an initiative designed to undermine Nato – and to exclude the British from the one area where they are able to play a leading role in European integration. However, the four governments behind the Tervuren plan reckoned that defence was the next big area for European integration and they were not prepared to let Anglo-Saxon hostility deflect their purpose.

It was not only this arcane argument on defence planning that kept open the rift between New Europe and Old Europe during most of 2003. The difficult situation in Iraq remained a source of friction between those who fought the war and those who opposed it. President Chirac made the mistake of insulting the east Europeans, and then failing to apologize, while his government flirted with the idea of a France-Germany-Russia alliance.

British ministers were rude to their French opposite numbers, more-or-less blaming them for the war. Germany, to the surprise of many, continued to back France in its anti-American stance – with the result that France has been less willing to compromise.

The Bush administration joined in the foolishness, by trying to punish France and Germany, for example by refusing to talk to German chancellor Gerhard Schröder for a long period.

This division of Europe into two camps remains a potent factor in EU politics. In the inter-governmental conference on the new EU constitution, why did the British government support Spain and Poland in their attempt to scupper the draft constitution’s proposals on double majority voting?

The answer, in part, is that the British government felt loyalty to Spain and Poland – a loyalty that stemmed from having been on the same side in the diplomatic war in the early months of 2003.

And one factor behind Spain and Poland fighting so hard against the double majority rules is that they are angry with the way France and Germany behaved towards them over Iraq and other issues.

Even the arguments over the economic Stability and Growth Pact are not unconnected to the rift over Iraq. One of the reasons why Spain and several small countries voted against letting France and Germany off the hook on the excessive deficit procedure was, once more, anger that France and Germany had bullied other countries in order to escape punishment.

Working together again

Despite the persistence of the fissure between New and Old Europe, by December 2003 there were some indications that Europe’s big three were learning to work together.

All three governments share a common fear of enlargement and how it may affect EU decision-making. They worry that hordes of veto-wielding small countries may disrupt attempts to forge common foreign and defence policies.

Chirac and Schröder now say that they cannot build European foreign or defence policy without Britain, and they have given up talking about a triple alliance with Russia.

Meanwhile Blair sees that his strong support for the United States has lost him credibility in much of Europe, and that he needs to show to other Europeans – if not a domestic audience – that he is a good European.

He sees European defence as a means of achieving that objective. Chirac, Schröder and Blair met in Berlin in September 2003, and narrowed their differences on European defence.

Shortly afterwards the British, French and German foreign ministers went to Tehran and presented a common line to the Iranians: they would have to comply with International Atomic Energy Agency rules or the European Union would cut off many of its contacts with Iran. In November this trilateral diplomacy appeared to bear fruit, when Iran said it would comply.

By the end of November the big three governments had reached a compromise on European defence. Chirac and Schröder have diluted their original plan for a military headquarters that could run an EU operation. Instead a small unit of operational planners will join the existing EU military staff, as part of the Council of Ministers secretariat.

Blair, too, has had to compromise – by accepting the principle that the European Union may need to do its own operational planning, and that this unit may one day evolve into a real headquarters – if everybody agrees that it should do so.

But in return France and Germany have agreed to change two contentious parts of the EU draft constitution – the article committing members to defend each other if attacked will be greatly watered down, while the article allowing a group of countries to move ahead with a defence avant-garde will be redrafted to focus on military capabilities. More important, Blair has reasserted British leadership in European defence, one of the few areas where Britain is well qualified to set the EU’s agenda. His new commitment to EU defence will help

to dispel his image as an American poodle and to restore British influence in the European Union.

Despite their general suspicion of domination by the big three, the Union’s smaller members have generally been prepared to follow the lead of London, Paris and Berlin on defence.

Initial reactions in Washington, however, have not all been favourable. Since Blair came up with the idea of an EU role in defence, five years ago, he has often had to expend energy on persuading first president Clinton, and then president Bush, that European defence would not damage Nato.

By the end of 2003 this task was becoming more difficult, for Washington has become increasingly hostile to EU defence. That is a consequence of the rampant Francophobia that is particularly strong in the Pentagon, where European defence is seen – wrongly, in fact – as a French invention.

However, Blair has a powerful argument to use with the Americans. If Britain blocked any EU role in operational planning, France and Germany would probably go ahead – with a few of their friends – to set up some sort of multinational military headquarters. And that could develop in a way that harmed Nato.

But if the British are part of the new EU planning arrangements, they can steer them in a Nato-friendly direction. Blair is likely to persuade Bush, if not everyone in the Pentagon, that he is doing the right thing.

The best way for the Europeans to convince the United States of the merits of EU defence would be for them to enhance their military capabilities. Now that the largely theological arguments about planning staffs are out of the way, EU governments should have more time to focus on improving the quality of their armed forces and their equipment.

There are some grounds for optimism. France, Italy and Spain have either switched or are switching to all-professional forces that can be more easily deployed overseas. The long-delayed project to build the A400M military transport aircraft is moving ahead. And the European Union has agreed to a British-French plan for an armaments agency, one of whose tasks will be to wag a finger at governments that fail to meet their promises on military capabilities.

This year the European Union has run modest military missions in Macedonia, with Nato’s help, and in the Congo, without any support from Nato. If next year the European Union can rise to the challenge of taking on the more demanding peacekeeping task in Bosnia – currently managed by Nato – the idea of European defence may finally earn some grudging respect in Washington.

The European Union is now at a pivotal moment in its development. There are some forces working to maintain the split between New and Old Europe, and other forces working to heal the wounds.

It is not yet clear which set of forces is stronger, or how the imminent enlargement of the Union will affect them. But in the long run defence may prove to be a subject that unites more than it divides

Charles Grant
Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform, an independent think-tank based in London.