Commentary on Mart Laar’s article: European defence has problems, but it is not in crisis
Most defence experts, I suspect, would agree with much of Mart Laar’s article; EU governments haven’t lived up to the ambitions they set out in their European Security Strategy of 2003. They have failed to noticeably improve their military capacities, despite more than a decade of plans and commitments, and the EU’s security and defence policies seem to have almost disappeared from the foreign policy map. Laar rightly rails against the widespread perception that Europe is destined to become a suburb of geo-politics, a “nice place to live” whose inhabitants have little or no say on global affairs.
But some of Mart Laar’s arguments are very debatable. After the euro crisis, is “a menacing crisis of defence…set to follow hard on its heels”? Defence policy isn’t very high on the European political agenda, and that’s not only because of the eurozone crisis. There are other worries too, such as the growth of anti-immigration parties in some EU members. Surely tensions in the passport-free Schengen area over the revival of internal border controls in some states come higher on the list of EU worries than defence policy?
This isn’t to say defence policy is not important. But the political reality is that most voters do not think it is more important than such other subjects as the economy, the environment or migration. This is partly because most Europeans do not perceive a direct military threat to their own territory – which is after all the raison d’etre of defence policy – and they are weary from the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. But it is also because European defence ministers struggle to answer the question: what is the role of armed forces in today’s rapidly changing world?
Laar mentions the serious and growing challenge of cyber-security. Strictly speaking, is cyber-security a defence policy issue? Don’t other EU or national non-military bodies have a major say in this policy area, such as interior or communications and IT ministries? Furthermore, the EU’s response to another of Laar’s examples, the 2008 Georgia war, was to deploy a civilian monitoring mission to shore up the ceasefire, not to send soldiers.
Defence spending cuts, deep as they are in some EU member states, should not be confused with a defence policy crisis. Collectively the EU-27 still spend more on defence than any other player bar the United States, so the issue is how that money should be spent, not how much is spent, as Laar himself acknowledges. In other words, the real problem facing European defence policy is that EU governments do not agree on how or when armed force should be used.
Roughly, the EU-27 can be split into three groups: activists, defenders and free-riders. Activists are prepared to use force abroad; defenders, partly because of austerity, prefer to focus on territorial defence; while free-riders spend little and do less. NATO’s recent Libya operation is a case in point: only five EU countries (all from Western Europe) deployed fighter jets to bomb ground targets.
The hope is that the combination of austerity and the shift in U.S. defence policy from Europe to Asia will spur EU governments to work harder at overcoming their differences on the use of force. If the U.S. is busy elsewhere, future Libya-type scenarios in Europe’s neighbourhood may require Europeans to deploy force without American help. Mart Laar is wrong to claim that after the eurozone defence is the next major crisis facing Europeans; but he is right to remind Europeans that they cannot expect to have much influence on global affairs unless they work more closely together on defence policy.
Daniel Keohane is head of strategic affairs at FRIDE, working from the Madrid-based think tank’s Brussels office email@example.com