Security and Defence: the mediocre balance sheet of British presidency edit

Dec. 12, 2005

With the EU in a deep malaise as a consequence of the French and Dutch rejection of the constitutional treaty, much is being made of the new role of European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), suddenly recast as the one moving part of an otherwise paralysed European integration process. The establishment of the EU’s “battle groups” as Europe’s rapid action force, the vital role of the EU in keeping the peace first in Bosnia and now in Atjeh, the ramping-up of the European Defence Agency: these and others can be cited.

-->This is useful for the defence ministries of the countries most deeply involved. After all, it isn't every day that political opportunities arise to demonstrate the relevance of defence expenditure in a way which doesn't have the potential downside of highly contentious operations such as Britain's participation in the Iraqi misadventure or the risk-laden deployment of the French forces in Côte d'Ivoire. From the standpoint of the British presidency, ESDPs dynamism is manna from heaven. Britain's six months are approaching their end, with apparent deadlock on the all-important 2007-2013 budget compromise and little else to point to in terms of success - unless one counts as a British success the fact that the EU stuck to the timetable set in 2004 (under the Irish presidency) on the accession negotiations with Turkey. ESDP furthermore plays to British strengths - only France possesses similar military clout - while fitting it neatly with Britain's pragmatic, action-driven, intergovernmental, approach to European integration: who needs a treaty when you can get things done without one?

In practice, this sounds too good to be true. ESDP is hardly European, has narrow limits in terms of what it does for Security and Defence, and is not a Policy. ESDP remains exclusively intergovernmental and the level of politico-military integration of the assets which the member states bring to the table is, at best, no greater than that of post-Cold War NATO (and substantially less than that of NATO during the Cold War). And no one should expect the European Defence Agency to take defence acquisition policy out of the hands of national procurement executives. If the EU's contribution to external Security is often substantial, this is due much more to the tools of 'soft power' - the prospect of EU membership ; neighbourhood policy; collective diplomacy -, than to the occasional mobilisation of military tools. With the signal exception of the EU's (essentially French) successful operation Artemis in the Congo in 2003, decisive military action, as in Bosnia and Kosovo, has not been EU-led: Europe's role was a subsequent one. Finally, the existence of ESDP does not a policy make: France's largest military operation since the setting-up of ESDP's institutions (in 2000/2001) is occurring in Côte d'Ivoire, in a national and UN framework, while Britain's even larger military commitment in Iraq is definitely not EU-mandated, to put it mildly. This is not to belittle ESDP: the spirit of Saint-Malo has brought about a signal improvement in intergovernmental defence cooperation between the European powers. But it is not a substitute for the spirit and the letter of the foreign and security parts of the still-born constitutional treaty; and it is not going to materially improve the balance sheet of a mediocre British presidency.