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EU: Analysis From Washington - A European Defense Identity

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 4 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Kosovo crisis has led the European Union to create a new defense union capable of independent and autonomous action, a step with potentially profound consequences for EU member states, for NATO, and for East-West relations.

As announced at an EU summit in Cologne yesterday that was largely overshadowed by developments in Yugoslavia, the new union will place additional financial burdens on each of the EU member states and may exacerbate political strains among them.

Moreover, it will inevitably be seen as a challenge to NATO's preeminent position in European defense arrangements, even though everyone involved denied that was their intent as they described a new division of labor between the Western alliance and the EU defense union.

And it opens yet another avenue for the reordering of the post-Cold War European security arrangements, especially as the EU saw fit to couple its announcement of a new defense identity with plans to promote closer ties with the Russian Federation.

Even though the EU appeared to play a key role in efforts to resolve the Kosovo crisis thanks to the mediating role of Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, many Europeans have been unhappy with what they view as their subordinate position relative to the United States.

Consequently, they had given more attention to strengthening what the EU leadership has called the European Defense Identity. Indeed, as one German official said this week, the European Union had reached agreement "under the pressure of the Kosovo crisis."

The new defense arrangement is to take shape over the next year and is intended, according to the announcement, to give the EU "the capacity for autonomous action, backed by credible military forces, the means to use them and a readiness to do so."

One of the reasons that the EU countries have often taken a back seat to the United States in defense planning is that they have not been willing to make the necessary investments in military infrastructure that would allow them a larger voice.

The new defense union is intended to change all that. Not only does it commit the EU as an organization to establishing a permanent coordinating body in Brussels, but it calls on the EU countries to expand their military capabilities, defense production, and intelligence gathering operations.

Even after such a build up, the new defense union will be very different from both NATO and the largely ineffective Western European Union in that members will not be committed to coming to one another's defense in the event of attack.

Instead, the new EU defense union will focus on conflict prevention and crisis management. That limitation makes it easier for the EU's neutral countries -- including Austria, Ireland, Finland and Sweden -- to participate. And it means that the EU will continue to rely on NATO for defense.

Because European countries have shown great reluctance to spend money on defense in the past and because even this new union explicitly looks to NATO for external defense, there has been much skepticism about the impact of any new European defense identity.

Even if EU countries do follow through with increased defense spending, they will have to rely on NATO and hence on the United States for many years to come to provide the airlift capacity and other military arrangements needed to respond to most crises.

But such a dismissive attitude may be missing the point for three reasons:

First, NATO will have to work with the EU just as the EU will have to work with NATO and that pattern is likely to increase European influence within the alliance.

Second, the EU will be able to take independent action on at least some occasions, something Washington may sometimes want in order to avoid direct involvement but sometimes oppose out of a concern that it would thereby lose control of the situation.

And third, the establishment of this new defense arrangement almost certainly guarantees that the Russian Federation will see it as a useful interlocutor if and when it does not want to talk to NATO.

Even if that is not their intent, at least some in Europe appear to be interested in heightening their ties with Moscow. One indication of that was the simultaneous EU announcement at Cologne of a common strategy for promoting stability in Russia and expanded EU ties with Moscow.

Obviously, all of these developments will take some time. But if even a few of them work out, June 3, 1999, is likely to be remembered more for this announcement by the European Union than for Yugoslavia's acceptance of terms on Kosovo.