Why the European Union should tread softly on defence

PARIS — Whether by design or coincidence, the European Union’s nascent involvement in defence coincides neatly with the decline in its popularity in its member states. A cynic would say that defence is a convenient way for the EU to distract attention from its failings in the economic, immigration, international trade and border security fields by opening a new – and possibly more controversial front – for debate.

Recent talk about a European Army shows that the debate is moving forward much faster than anticipated, but for no good reason except, possibly, the European elections on the 26 May.

Be that as it may, the question of the EU’s role in defence merits a wider and more deliberate discussion that has been the case to date. But this requires that the EU’s legitimacy in defence be established, which is likely to be an insurmountable obstacle.

The Union’s inability to agree on a single immigration policy to effectively police its borders, added to the wildly divergent immigration policies of member states, has amply demonstrated that, even on so vital a subject, a joint approach is impossible.

Since her accidental appointment, the pompously titled High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, has travelled the world widely, ostensibly speaking for the Union, even as the governments of member states continued to proclaim and implement their own, and often contradictory, policies. Not a promising base for EU expansion into defence.

Besides speaking in the wilderness on behalf of Brussels, Mogherini has one other duty: she chairs the European Defence Agency which was founded to “act as a catalyst, promote collaborations, launch new initiatives and introduce solutions to improve defence capabilities.”

Yet, in the 15 years since it was founded, the EDA has been involved in ancillary work like preparing capability plans and international training programs, while a multilateral organisation, The Organisation for Joint Armament Co-operation (OCCAR – international organisation whose core-business is the through life management of cooperative defence equipment programmes) has been preferred for the “juicy” work of managing defence hardware programs.

So far, not so good. However, the European Union does have legitimacy in economic affairs, even if more by custom than by competence, and since defence needs money in large quantities the EU is a convenient conduit for member states, large and small, to fund their joint research and development projects – the indispensable precursors to a possible future common defence industry.

Distributing other people’s money is what the European Union knows how to do, albeit not too efficiently, but with better supervision it can become sufficiently proficient to do that job.

The EU could also play a role in harmonising European arms export regulations, but as in the final analysis the decision rests with national governments it would be little more than a talking shop, useful for sharing views and debate, but for little more.

But the real obstacle to the EU’s playing a bigger role in the defence of Europe is still, and always will be, NATO.

The Atlantic Alliance has been doing an effective job in defending Europe for 70 years, and has more credibility in this respect that the EU will ever have. And those Eastern European states the EU saw fit to take in trust NATO – and the United States – far more than they will ever trust the EU for their defence.

More than any other factor, the EU’s move into the realm of defence will be thwarted by these East Europeans who, having suffered under the Soviet boot for decades, are most unlikely to ever trust the European Union more than they trust NATO or the United States for their defence.