Wednesday, June 01, 2011

EU ministers tackle defence austerity

by Tomas Valasek

How do you do more with less? The EU defence ministers agreed last week that the way to limit the impact of the economic crisis on their defence budgets lies in more co-operation. In a joint statement, they called for more military 'pooling and sharing': joint development and procurement of weapons, and partial integration of European militaries. EU member-states have trialled such ideas before but with limited success. Deep co-operation remains highly sensitive: governments are reluctant to build joint units because this may require them to share decisions on how and when to use them. The ministers' conclusions are correspondingly cautious: they call for a “structured” and “long-term” approach while offering few specific guidelines. It need not be this way: past pooling and sharing attempts offer plenty of lessons on what makes military collaboration successful.

In a recent CER report,['Surviving austerity: The case for a new approach to EU military collaboration', May 2011,]. I suggested ways for European countries to avoid past mistakes. Partial military integration works best when participating countries have similar strategic cultures, a high level of mutual trust, comparable attitudes to defence industry, and relatively low corruption in defence procurement. It also helps if countries are roughly similar in size, and serious about defence matters: that is, they are willing to use their armed forces and keen to maintain their ability to fight for future contingencies.

Several conclusions for EU defence ministers flow from these observations. Since many factors have to align for pooling and sharing to succeed, future defence integration will remain an exception rather than the rule. The conditions listed above only occur in some – and not necessarily geographically connected – parts of Europe. Hence, the idea that EU defence could begin around a single core group, the emergence of which would encourage others to join in a ‘snowballing’ effect, seems unrealistic. Future events may well prod European militaries to create a single, coherent military force. But no such outcome is foreseeable currently given widely varying levels of threat perception, political interest and military cultures across the Union.

The report also recommends that rather than pursuing ‘permanent structured co-operation’, the focus of EU countries and institutions should be on encouraging the formation of several “islands of co-operation” along regional lines, where members partly integrate their militaries. Some of these islands are already well established. The Benelux countries have had much success with pooling and sharing forces. The Nordic states are moving in this direction, as are France and the UK, which have recently concluded a bilateral treaty on defence co-operation. The recent EU defence ministers' communiquĂ© makes a nod to the islands of co-operation idea by stating that multinational co-operation should also take place on a regional basis.

The EU's ability to nudge member-states towards such co-operation will be limited: the capitals will want a final say on with whom to partner, and to what end and depth. But this is not so say that there is nothing that the EU can do; in fact, European institutions have already been helpful. Their key role lies in spreading lessons learned in one region to the rest of Europe. The European Defence Agency, which EU countries set up to facilitate collaboration, has been collecting data on past and current examples of pooling and sharing; it should also catalogue why some have succeeded better than others. The EU military staff, which advises the EU high representative, has conducted a similar but forward-looking exercise: it collected information on what military skills or facilities the member-states are willing to pool and share. It should now use the data to highlight opportunities for collaboration.

The EU can also give member-states incentives to enter into permanent collaboration. Its best tool is the EU 'battlegroups': multinational, 1,500-strong units that are prepared, on a six-month basis, to deploy rapidly in and around Europe. While their primary raison d’ĂȘtre has been to give the EU the ability to quickly respond to crises, it was also hoped that the battlegroups would encourage governments to build permanent joint units. But on this last count, the experiment has disappointed: countries come together for six months, but then go their own separate ways. The EU should adopt recent Polish proposals that the battlegroups should always be composed of the same states, and that they should be on rotation on a predictable schedule, for example every three years. This would give the member-states reasons to maintain close long-term co-operation with partners in the battlegroup, and possibly to pool their units on a permanent basis, not just for the duration of the rotation.

Pooling and sharing will never compensate for inadequate defence budgets: when average spending in Europe, as percentage of GDP, drops by half – as it has over the past two decades – militaries will inevitably suffer. The EU member-states will almost certainly do 'less with less' rather than 'more with less'. However, properly applied, pooling and sharing can partly offset the impact of lower budgets. So while EU countries will still lose some of their military power to budget cuts, they will be better off with pooling and sharing than without.

Tomas Valsek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately the mantra of 'pooling and sharing' is exactly that; words designed to distract attention away from budget cuts and inaction. To add insult to injury the EU's defence institutions add little other than overhead and bureaucracy; for example the self-serving European Defence Agency which is heavy on self-publicity (often passing off the successes of member-states as its own, e.g. the recent helicopter initiative) and low on delivery.

The Libya conflict has all but confirmed the EU's Common Security & Defence Policy (CSDP) as a busted flush, with NATO appearing to be the only credible multilateral approach to defence. European nations thus need to reassign their resources away from CSDP (i.e. stop throwing good money after bad) and put greater emphasis on reforming NATO so as to better serve their defence needs.