Comment: The start of an EU army?

The defence review could mark the first step in the ‘Europeanisation’ of our military capabilities.

By Azeem Ibrahim

The government’s strategic defence and security review is now widely accepted to announce cuts of up to 20% to the annual defence budget. As the parliamentary defence committee has been quick to point out, the review is being done too quickly with too little consultation with the public and the defence industry.

Unfortunately, it seems that such rash cuts are not unique to the UK, but are actually happening all over Europe. Defence spending has been the first casualty of the austerity measures in the face of out of control government debt.

Many European nations acknowledge that the future security environment is uncertain. Even before that, we have treaties to uphold. Our enforcement of global rules relies on a strong military, as does our ability to protect the safe passage of the heat and light we take for granted, the goods we buy at the supermarket, and the food on our plates. And with the centre of gravity of global power moving eastwards, these cuts risk withdrawing us from the strategic picture in Asia for a generation.

There is also the question of the industrial capability which we would lose, as cuts bite. That kind of knowhow in the defence industry is something a country can build up painstakingly over time, and once cut, is hard to get back.

So why in the face of such uncertainly are EU nations so willing to cut their defence budgets?

There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, most EU nations are happy to let the United States provide the necessary security umbrella to ensure a stable international environment. After all, even during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo – Europe’s worst ethnic cleansing conflicts since World War II – Europe was wholly impotent and had to rely on the United States to provide the aircraft for the bombing sorties. In fact, 97% of all aircraft on this ‘NATO mission’ were American. The military thinking seems to be that ‘the US came out to rescue us before, and it will again’.

Secondly, many EU countries have been discussing the possibility of ‘burden sharing’ and exploring the prospect of creating an EU army controlled by Brussels. France, Germany and Poland in particular are keen on this idea and see it as a key building-block for a future European state. President Sarkozy already seems to be laying the groundwork with the creation of the EU Rapid Reaction Corps which consists of 1500 troops from member countries which take turns to be on standby for emergencies.

Angela Merkel, in an interview with the Bild in 2007 went further and said that the creation of an EU Army should be a “key goal” for the next 50 years. “In the EU itself, we have to come closer to creating a common European army,” she explained.

Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign affairs minister, also believes that one of the ways of strengthening a common European identity is by building a European army. In an interview earlier this year with Le Figaro he said: “If Europe wants to be credible in the war against terrorism, in stabilising crisis zones and in nuclear safety, it must ‘produce’ its own security.”

So where does this leave the UK?

The previous Labour defence secretary, John Hutton, told the Sunday Times in 2008 that people who dismiss an EU army are ‘pathetic’. Current defence secretary Liam Fox has unequivocally denied rumours that the UK and France may share aircraft carriers as the coalition government considers scrapping its own two planned carriers.

However, in the face of cuts of 20% to the defence budget, Britain’s pretensions to a world power status with global strike capabilities will surely be at an end. As will our usefulness to our most important ally the United States. In fact, the Pentagon has explicitly warned the MOD that such cuts would threaten the special relationship. How then will the UK be able to influence the grand chessboard?

But most worryingly of all, with such a depleted military, five, ten or fifteen years down the line, how are we going to resist demands to pool our military with those of other countries´? We have built up a military which is respected all around the world. I fear that these cuts are the beginning of a process of running it down and subsuming it into the Europeanisation of our hard-won military prowess.

Azeem Ibrahim is a vice president of the United Kingdom National Defence Association, director and policy board member of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and a former international security fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

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