Prepared for the IISS/CEPS European Security Forum, 10 September 2001

A European view of ESDP

by Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform

A lack of political leadership

It has become something of a commonplace to say that the European Union is suffering from a lack of political leadership. Where are the Delors, Kohls, Mitterrands and Thatchers of today? This dearth is especially evident in the specific area of defence policy. For the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) is a new and still largely embryonic venture. The progress made over the past three years has been striking. However, there is a real risk that the ESDP which finally emerges will much less impressive or noteworthy than had been promised.

The ESDP's biggest problem is that very few senior politicians are giving it much time or energy. Tony Blair, who together with Jacques Chirac set the ball rolling with the December 1998 Saint Malô declaration, has been strangely silent on European defence since the Nice summit (though the major role taken by UK forces in Macedonia suggests that the Blair government remains committed to the project of European defence). Mr Chirac now appears to have other priorities and interests, while neither Lionel Jospin, Gerhard Schröder, Silvio Berlusconi nor Jose Maria Aznar has ever shown much interest in European defence.

Nor have foreign ministers such as Joschka Fischer, Hubert Vedrine and Robin Cook been great advocates of European defence (it is too early to tell whether Mr Cook's replacement, Jack Straw, will be). The defence ministers have generally shown more interest, with Geoff Hoon, Alan Richard and Rudolf Scharping all making valuable contributions. But much of the hard work of building the ESDP has fallen to senior officials, such as political directors and heads of policy in defence ministries.

This may not be enough to ensure that the ESDP fulfils expectations. Some of the problems covered by this paper – such as the difficulties of enhancing capabilities and dealing with Turkey – are probably not resolvable without some leadership from, or at least support from prime ministers, foreign ministers and finance ministers.

This paper will not focus on US attitudes to the ESDP, for I no longer regard them as a serious problem. Most senior figures in the Bush administration are broadly supportive of what the EU is trying to do. Evidently, some influential voices in Washington oppose the idea of the EU developing military capabilities. But the general line of the Bush administration appears to be this: if the ESDP succeeds in boosting European capabilities, that is good for the US; and if the ESDP fails to achieve that end, no great harm will have been done. In any case, the US defence establishment has more pressing priorities and concerns, such as the Quadrennial Defence Review, missile defence and NATO enlargement.

The problem of Turkey

Turkey has still not accepted the accord on EU-NATO relations that every other member of NATO – including the US – approved last December. Turkey has demanded the right to be included in the ESDP's decision-making. The EU's response is that Turkey should be involved in the shaping of decisions and the management of operations, when Turkish forces participate; but that because Turkey is not a member of the EU, it cannot claim the right to veto autonomous EU actions that do not involve Turkey.

Because of this blockage, the EU does not have guaranteed access to NATO planning facilities at SHAPE. Furthermore, NATO has to approve any formal contact between EU and NATO officials on a case-by-case basis. This is starting to hamper the EU's efforts to build up its military organisation.

Last May the British, with some help from the Americans, seemed to have brokered a deal on Turkish involvement in the ESDP. Foreign minister Ismail Cem accepted a compromise at a Brussels meeting of NATO foreign ministers. But he appears to have been over-ruled by the Turkish general staff when he returned home. Then Greece said that it could not accept the compromise either. Indeed, some of those directly involved in trying to solve this problem complain that Greek positions – such as attempts to restrict the EU's use of NATO assets – are extremely unhelpful.

It is quite possible that Turkish-EU relations will get considerably worse, before they get better. And this has little to do with the ESDP. It now seems likely that Cyprus, without the northern part, will join the EU in 2004 or 2005. This may lead Turkey to annexe the north of the island, an act which would be illegal in international law.

The problem of Turkey's role in the ESDP will not be resolved unless those outside Turkey try hard to understand its position. This is rather difficult, because the Turks have – in my opinion – made very little effort to explain their views to policy-makers and opinion-formers. Their PR strategy has been little short of disastrous. Whatever the true merits of the Turkish case, they have come across as unwilling to compromise, inflexible and unreasonable. This stance has been losing them friends in Europe.

Their chief concern, as far as I can tell, is that the EU might intervene in an area of strategic interest to Turkey – such as Cyprus, the Aegean or the Balkans. If the EU wanted to borrow NATO assets or command structures for an operation, all NATO members would have to give their approval on a case-by-case basis, which means that Turkey would have the power of veto. But it worries about the prospect of autonomous missions, which it would not be able to veto. And Turkey may be concerned that Greece could use its membership of NATO to block a NATO military mission in these sensitive areas, with the result that the EU – soon to contain two Greek-speaking countries – would have to run the operation.

If Turkey continues to block an accord on EU-NATO relations, the EU will have to think seriously about ways of getting round the problem. Building up an EU equivalent of SHAPE would be very expensive. But the EU should strengthen its links with national planning staffs – such as Britain's Permanent Joint Headquarters, or the American headquarters at Stuttgart. It should be fairly easy for the EU to run an autonomous operation through drawing on the expertise of such national planners, without any help from SHAPE.

If the EU did start to develop ways of bypassing NATO, one might suppose that Turkey would see reasons for lifting its veto, and that the US would increase its pressure on Ankara to accept the compromise of last May. And there is not much doubt that if a serious security crisis blew up, the US would be extremely keen for the EU and NATO to collaborate as closely as possible – without obstacles – in handling the crisis.

Turkey has to make a strategic choice that is about much more than ESDP. Does it want to return to the path of rapprochement with the EU; or will it continue to allow its chiefs of staff to set its foreign policy priorities? The answer to that question is unclear.

The problem of military capabilities

The EU has much progress to make on building up its military capabilities. The capabilities conference in October will, like its predecessor, review the imbalance between the forces that are required to fulfil the headline goals, and what the governments have offered.

The biggest shortages are on the logistical side: EU members lack sufficient air-lift and sea-lift; transportable docks, communications equipment and headquarters; and intelligence-gathering satellites, aircraft and UAVs. But there are also some serious gaps at the sharper end of military operations, such as the suppression of enemy air defences, combat search and rescue and precision-guided weapons.

These gaps are not only a problem because they limit the scope of any autonomous mission that the EU may wish to undertake. They are also a huge public relations problem, particularly in the US. It is hard for Europeans to answer the question of American sceptics – "where's the beef?" – when many of their governments appear to be doing very little about developing the necessary capabilities.

The EU's success or failure in boosting capabilities can be measured in a number of ways. One criteria is budgets. Both pessimists and optimists can find figures to support their positions. The IISS's Strategic Survey 2000-01 measures defence spending by the EU-15 in constant 1999 dollars, reporting a decline from $178 billion in 1997 to an estimated $147 billion in 2001. But given the shrinking value of the euro over the past three years, any dollar measurement of European defence budgets is bound to show a decline, whatever the real resources that governments devote to their armed forces.

NATO provides figures for the period 1995-2000 (with the 2000 figure estimated), based on constant local currencies. These tell a different story: the defence budgets of the NATO-Europe countries (not counting the three which joined in 1999) went up a little from $184 billion to $190 billion.[1]

George Robertson also says that eight out of the 11 EU members of NATO have raised defence budgets in real terms this year, including Britain, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands (though I note – with regret – that he has not given hard numbers).

More important than the amount of money in defence budgets is how effectively it is spent. And on that criteria, Europe does seem to be making progress. As of next year, France will have an all-professional army. Spain and Italy have begun to abolish conscription. Germany's recent emphasis on building up crisis reaction forces is having some effect: it does have 500 soldiers available for Macedonia, in addition to some 8,000 already serving in Bosnia and Kosovo. Sweden has restructured its armed forces, reducing from 29 to eight the number of brigades focused on territorial defence, while increasing the forces available for peacekeeping.

Another way of measuring success is to look at procurement programmes. Britain has taken delivery of its first few C-17 transport aircraft. France recently announced a modest increase in its procurement budget over the next five years. And four EU countries have created OCCAR, an organisation that should improve the efficiency of the management of transnational weapons programmes. In addition, three more EU countries are in the process of joining OCCAR.

The A-400M transport plane – backed by Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Turkey – is a litmus test of whether Europe is serious about the ESDP. If a contract is signed soon, Europe will be showing the world that it is serious about building up its heavy-lift capability. But without a contract the A-400M project may unravel – and the ESDP would lose credibility.

The arguments over the institutional arrangements for delivering improved capabilities remain unresolved. How should the EU fill the gap between what it needs and what governments offer? How can it ensure that governments meet their pledges? And what are the appropriate mechanisms for generating peer-group pressure? What is at stake is how much the EU's own force planning system should be different from and independent to that of NATO. Some of the arguments on this issue have degenerated into the worst sorts of abstract theology.

There is widespread agreement that NATO and the EU should work together closely on capabilities and force planning; and that the EU need not have the same force planning process as NATO, given that the Petersberg missions it envisages are different from much of what NATO plans. What has not been agreed is the composition and the level of the committees that discuss these issues. Another issue is timing: the NATO planning cycle runs over two years, while the EU's presidencies run for six months.

It might be helpful if the EU agreed to follow the NATO time-cycle, and also if the EU defence ministers met together on a more regular and formal basis, so that they could generate some peer pressure for enhancing capabilities. However, the fundamental problem on capabilities is not constructing the perfect institutional mechanism. It is rather an issue of political will. Either Mr Schröder decides that the ESDP is important, and so he must find enough money to ensure that the A-400M is built – or he does not. And linked to the question of political will is of the broader issue of the saliency of European defence.

One socialist member of the Bundestag said to me recently: "Of course I will go on voting for a smaller defence budget. My constituents want more schools and hospitals, not warplanes. And they are right, there is no military threat out there." In a sense, he is right. But Germany itself had to take over half a million refugees from Bosnia – which shows the kind of problems the EU will have to face if it lacks the means to manage crises in its near abroad.

The EU and the UN

One issue on which member-states do not agree is whether an EU military mission would require a UN mandate. Some say yes, some no and some maybe. Of course this is only relevant for a mission to a country where the local government has not issued an invitation. Both Sierra Leone and Macedonia have invited peacekeepers to their countries.

The EU's various documents on its new defence policy have deliberately left this matter ambiguous. That is probably as it should be. In a crisis, some of the governments which are keenest on a UN mandate will be pragmatic enough to drop their objections. Thus 19 governments supported the NATO military campaign against Serbia, though it went far beyond peacekeeping and had no UN mandate.

A more interesting issue is the extent to which the EU could assist the UN in coping with security crises in places other than Europe. To quote one senior British official, speaking in a personal capacity: "Could the EU give the UN the Rapid Reaction Capability it needs?" The UN can usually raise enough peacekeepers for forces in places such as Eritrea. What it cannot easily do is find the troops for an intervention force, such as that which was required to stop the bloodshed in East Timor.

The US is certainly not going to want to provide such forces to the UN. The EU, however, might be able to provide high-intensity forces, with lift capability and command structures. After the initial intervention, other forces could replace those provided by the EU. All this would be paid for out of the UN budget. Kofi Annan is apparently interested in these ideas – as are, I believe, senior figures in Rome, Paris and London.

Final thoughts

For all the problems, the EU has made much progress over the past three years. Three important new institutions, the Political and Security Committee, the Military Committee and the Military Staff, have been established. And despite the lack of political leadership referred to, the idea that the EU should be able to manage a military operation is not opposed by any mainstream political party in the Union, bar Britain's Conservatives.

Whether or not the EU chooses to declare the ESDP "operational" by the end of the year, it is already capable of carrying out small-scale Petersberg missions involving a few thousand troops. And if it was able to draw on NATO assets, it would be able to undertake more ambitious operations. Some of the longer-term challenges that lie ahead include:

Moves towards role specialisation or common capabilities would, inevitably, provoke political opposition in several member-states, and not only in Britain. However, that once again illustrates the importance of political leadership: prime ministers and ministers need to sell the benefits of, and the case for, European defence. They are currently failing to do so.

[1] My colleague Daniel Keohane has written an article on these budgetary issues, available on the CER website (