European defence, CSDP and the UK: two cases of catch-22

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This article originally appeared on European Geosrategy

I recently asked a very highly regarded United States (US) academic their thoughts on the current state of European defence. The reply was concise and astute: ‘Spend as little as possible whenever possible while always attempting to prop up national defence industries. If you are one of the majorEuropean powers (emphasis and satire mine), then strive not to have too much less than any other equivalent power. As for France and the United Kingdom (UK), try to retain at least some overseas intervention capability for old time’s sake. Always try to placate the Americans while maximising all of the above; i.e. try to preserve at least one brigade and one fighter squadron you can send to war and keep there for a very long time if necessary.’

This retort was in relation to Europe in general and not the European Union’s (EU) Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) or the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) per se. Yet, since both of these instruments of collective defence and security rely on the same sets of armed forces, this reality affects the tools of both dramatically. When it comes to defence spending, unfortunately, there are only two options facing European states and let us face it, what we are really talking about is managed decline relative to other emerging powers. Or as the Financial Times recently put it, ‘we are growing older […] and the less we grow, the more we squabble over budgets’.

what we are really talking about is managed decline relative to other emerging powers

So in this era of low growth, the first case of Catch-22 is this. European politicians (UK included) can either spend more on defence by increasing the national debt (and also risk the wrath of their publics who are not persuaded) and precipitate further decline. Alternatively, they can opt not to invest more on defence and actually precipitate decline even faster. Given that we are replete with the more short-term needs of politicians and not the long-term visions of statesmen, the second option is clearly winning.

Attempts to try and muddle through this gloomy environment are ubiquitous. Two obvious examples were the outcomes of both the long anticipated EU Summit on defence in December of 2013 and the communiqué resulting from the NATO Summit in Wales last September. The former saw an agreement to ‘deepen defence co­operation’, but with France, Germany and the UK disagreeing on how best to achieve these goals. The latter gave us a declaration whereby Allies will ‘aim to move towards the existing NATO guideline of spending 2% of GDP on defence within a decade’. As a colleague recently put it, this agreement was a veritable caveat soup and not worth the paper it was printed on. One obvious answer to reduced defence budgets in Europe is the EU’s Pooling and Sharing programme, as Tom Dyson has argued effectively in this series. However, the impression held by many officials in the UK is that these programmes were ‘dead at birth’.

A second change in the environment is that the US is now looking to Europe and saying, we no longer care if it is in the EU or NATO but please invest in your armed forces. There now seems to be a genuine US desire for the Europeans, especially the bigger states, to organise themselves either in NATO or in the EU or both. Although, the fact that the last NATO Secretary General was from a CSDP opt-out nation (Denmark) and the current Secretary General is from a non-EU nation (Norway) does suggest there may still be a degree of US ambivalence towards CSDP.

the UK is now much more dependent on its European Allies

The UK’s original impetus for backing CSDP (or ESDP as it was then known) was to preserve US commitment to NATO by hopefully inspiring its other European partners to invest more in their own defence structures. This goal is perceived in London to have failed. At the same time, and as Sven Biscop has pointed out, the UK is now much more dependent on its European Allies given the US rebalance to Asia and the subsequent uncertainty of its commitment to some aspects of European security. To put it another way, unless the big European players organise themselves collectively, there will be no substitute to the heavy doctrinal intellectual presence that used to come from the Americans through NATO. However, the UK certainly does not think the replacement of US leadership through any European caucus in NATO or through CSDP is imminent. They certainly do not believe that there will be a concerted effort across Europe to invest in robust military capabilities; this is proving difficult even at home.

It is no secret that the UK has for some time believed ‘many European countries would never become credible military partners and that CSDP was therefore not worth their time’. Moreover their position has been that, with some exception, CSDP ‘operations did not support the UK’s strategic interests’. Although not a CSDP mission itself, this UK position has only been strengthened since the Libya campaign with the refusal of some, most notably Germany, to play a role in the operation. Therefore, austerity, US geopolitical shifts, but the perceived lack in credibility of most of its European partners have all pushed the UK towards bilateral security cooperation with the French and not towards investing time or resources in CSDP.

The primary conviction of the UK is that the appropriate role for CSDP is in the broader cooperational approach, otherwise known as the comprehensive approach. This does not mean that the CSDP should not or cannot do sharp end military operations such as Atalanta, which incidentally UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) officials will also tell you (off the record) is a much better resourced mission than Ocean Shield. However, they will also make the point that this EU flagship military operation has been effectively run out of a national HQ and, therefore, no CSDP standing operational headquarters(OHQ) is needed.

the UK looks to its partners and only sees an ambition to spend as little as possible

The UK has been sceptical of proposals to build an autonomous CSDP OHQ and has even gone as far as blocking such proposals. The UK answer is always: ‘we do not need one and there are plenty of military OHQs already in place in Europe’. They will also say, ‘what type of military mission is so big that it cannot be managed by a national HQ?’ Or if it were, then NATO would most likely be involved anyway. Yet, this misses the need for CSDP to be able to do proper operational planning before a large crisis, especially combined civ-mil planning.

Of course, what UK officials are really sceptical of is finding the necessary political will or capacity in Europe to fund, man and use such a sizable OHQ. It is very hard to get member states to invest in capabilities at all, never mind for CSDP. The nations all ask, how much will it cost us if they get used? How will it help our nation?

If the UK looks to its partners and only sees an ambition to spend as little as possible on defence coupled with the declining will to engage in military operations generally, why should they think it in their best interest to fund two collective OHQs in Europe? They are too big to man and too costly to run, especially at a time when Europe’s reducing its defence budgets almost across the board. Furthermore, they believe that most of the MoDs and treasuries across Europe tend to agree with them sotto voce on this, despite the UK’s seemingly political isolation on the issue.

So case two of the Catch-22 is this, the UK can try to become a leader in developing CSDP assets and capabilities, while risking more of its own scarce resources, in the hope that Europe will invest more in its own defence and security. Or it can take the position that there will be no genuine foreseeable replacement to US leadership and just accept this vacuum while trying to ride out the benefits of the ‘special relationship’ for as long as it can. Ultimately, the UK should assume a leadership role in CSDP and continue to get as much out of their European partners as they possibly can. But until Europeans start to significantly reinvest in their defence and security generally, this sceptical island will continue to see investment in CSDP as putting the cart before the horse.


This article is part of the “National Perspectives and CSDP” special focus series being published by European Geostrategy. It is the third contribution from a British perspective. Read more about the series

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