If one was ever tempted to believe that the abdication of foreign policy is a good idea, they would be well-advised to examine the periphery of Europe in 2015. There is a failed state and a migration crisis in the South, involving thousands of deaths. In the East, there is an on-going war, which again has claimed thousands of lives and is destroying part of a European country.
Clearly, EU foreign policy is ill-focused and ineffective. Yet, when the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, proposes steps that would alleviate this – namely an EU army – he is ridiculed.
The idea of a EU military has been proposed and dismissed before. In the 1950s, in reaction to security concerns and German rearmament, Western European countries proposed to establish the European Defense Community. The initiative failed, however, as it was rejected by the French Parliament.
Given the rising disorder on the European periphery, coupled with the hollowing out of national militaries, it is the right time to resurrect the idea. However, it is important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good; the abolition of national armies is non-essential, and great progress can be made without this drastic step.
For the problem with the militaries of the EU is not that soldiers are too few, but rather that they are ill-equipped. This has come about partly due to underinvestment in very basic capabilities; consider that in 2017 Britain may have two aircraft carriers, but have no aircraft for them, owing to stringent budgeting.
In addition, states are unwilling to spend on equipment that will only be used occasionally, such as intelligence systems and reconnaissance aircraft. The result is that even states such as the UK and France have lost the ability to intervene without the support of the U.S.
These growing deficiencies were made clear in the recent interventions in Mali and Libya. The Libyan campaign involved the implementation of a no-fly zone, to prevent the civilians of Benghazi being bombed, a standard task for powerful European countries. Yet the U.S had to supply one half of the aircrafts, eight per cent of air-refuelling capacity and eighty per cent of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights. To make matters worse, EU countries began to run out of weapons after a certain number of months, these again needing to be topped up by the U.S.
Regarding the Mali intervention, not only were few European countries willing to offer assistance to France in preventing an Islamist takeover of its former colony, but the U.S., whose support was once again necessary, raised the prospect of charging for any help provided.
If the problem was limited to capacity for external intervention, it would not be so worrying. But it also seems that some states have lost core defensive capabilities for their national territories. For example, the UK doesn’t have planes that can detect submarines. In Germany, less than half of tanks and aircrafts are operational, and the reliability of those that are deemed functional is questionable; a recent arms shipment to Kurdistan was grounded for days due to several breakdowns.
It is in the context of these issues that one must consider any new efforts toward EU military cooperation. Such cooperation should aim to eliminate two problems. First, duplication of capabilities, which leads to excess costs. Second, the free-riding problem, whereby most European countries do nothing to ensure stability in the European periphery.
Where can such cooperation begin? Consider the example of aircrafts that are capable of detecting submarines. Being rarely used, they are not often maintained. But rather than expecting each state to maintain such aircrafts individually, EU countries could set up a common capability corps, which would ensure that such equipment would be available for use by all member states. In return, it ought to be funded by all members. Such a corps would not be in conflict with existing neutrality arrangements, and would clearly not infringe on the role of NATO.
If successful, the corps could be expanded to ensure that aircrafts and drones relating to intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, refuelling and transport could be available to each member state.
Some, of course would object to this, as they would believe that a greater European capacity to intervene may mean more interventions and therefore more deaths. However, pacifist EU states remain unlikely to intervene except in the most egregious circumstances, when intervention could scarcely make things worse.
And on the rare occasions when intervention or defense is necessary, such capabilities would surely reduce the number of deaths. Greater intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities would reduce the chance that civilian areas would be accidentally targeted. Greater refuelling capabilities would also reduce civilian deaths, as the trade-off whereby command must decide whether to refuel reconnaissance aircraft or strike forces would be eliminated.
Such a corps would thus ensure not only that EU states could move to prevent great suffering and displacement in our near-abroad, but that, when it does act, the operation is as effective as possible at reducing the number of civilian casualties.
Not everyone will be convinced of the merits of greater military cooperation; there is an assumed contradiction between altruism and power. Alas, on-going tragedies around Europe make it clear that without power, Europe has no capacity to be altruistic. Perhaps it is time to abandon a contradiction that was only ever intellectual, and never real.