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EU: European Defense Dimension And NATO Remains A Contentious Question

  • Ahto Lobjakas

The 15 defense ministers of the European Union met on Monday in the Portuguese resort town of Sintra to discuss the EU's fledgling security initiative. RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas looks at what has been done so far in creating a strictly European defense force and how the EU's plans mesh with those of NATO.

Prague, 29 February 2000 (RFE/RL -- Monday's meeting of EU defense ministers marked another step toward the establishment of what is formally called a European Security and Defense Identity, or ESDI.

The idea of a common defense has been widely discussed within NATO, as well as in the EU. A legal framework for the ESDI was laid down in the EU's 1997 Amsterdam Treaty. Two years later, NATO reaffirmed the necessity for a greater European contribution to Western security, particularly in the wake of the air campaign against Yugoslavia last spring, in which the U.S. bore the brunt of the NATO effort.

The EU took its first concrete step toward the realization of a common defense identity at a summit in Helsinki two-and-a-half months ago. There, EU leaders approved the creation of a Rapid Reaction Force of from 50,000 to 60,000 soldiers capable of undertaking peacekeeping, and if necessary, peacemaking operations. The force, due to be functional by 2003, in intended to be able to deploy within 60 days and stay in operation for at least a year.

This month, the EU has turned its attention to the structures necessary for overseeing the Rapid Reaction Force. Two weeks ago (Feb. 13), EU foreign ministers created three committees that will form the backbone of ESDI. The first of the committees will gradually transform itself into a working military structure, with its nucleus consisting of military attaches from all member states. This committee starts work at EU headquarters on Wednesday.

Second, a political and security committee was created to coordinate the day-to-day running of EU foreign and security policy. And third, the EU has established a higher-level military committee -- made up of representatives of member countries' defense chiefs -- to advise the EU's Council of Ministers, its main decision-making body. The military committee will gather for the first time in Brussels next week (Mar. 7).

Monday's informal meeting of EU defense ministers did not deal with operational details. It focused mainly on organizational matters, such as the functioning of the three supervising committees, national contributions to the reaction force and the question of how to go about financing it. A joint statement after the meeting's conclusion carefully stated that the ESDI will not undermine NATO's military readiness, which it called the key guarantor of European security.

For many analysts, however, the relationship between a European defense dimension and NATO remains a contentious question. ESDI has caused widespread concern in the U.S., where some fear it will become not a partner, but an independent European element in NATO. Several observers have noted that yesterday's meeting was not attended either by NATO Secretary-General George Robertson or U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen.

Edward Foster is head of the European Research Program at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, a leading defense and security think-tank. He told RFE/RL that doubts about ESDI in the U.S. and other non-EU NATO member-states are largely due to the EU's own lack of clarity on how far or how fast its defense dimension will grow:

"The promotion of the European Security and Defense Identity in areas outside NATO does invite a split-level response from the United States. If it [that is, ESDI,] can be made to seem NATO-friendly, then there is scope for it being offered as a good thing, it would be conceived of as a burden-sharing argument. If it is something which appears to steal a march upon NATO, which appears to be encroaching on NATO's preserve, then this is something which inspires nervousness in the United States."

According to Foster, successful coordination of decision-making between NATO and the EU will prove crucial to the initiative. He says a positive sign was provided by joint NATO-Western European Union (WEU) war games earlier this month. The WEU is a long-dormant defense organization now set to be integrated into the union by the end of this year.

Foster said the danger of putting the U.S. on the sidelines of European security is not the only one the EU faces:

"The real danger, it seems to me, about Europeans setting themselves targets is not that we'll somehow bounce the Americans out of European security, but that we will set them on edge and at the same time fail to meet the targets we set ourselves -- in which case we'll have the worst of both worlds."

EU defense ministers acknowledged yesterday that the success of a credible European security initiative hinges above all on adequate funding. They agreed to hold a donors conference at the end of the year, when individual EU member states will announce how many troops and how much equipment they will be able to contribute.

There is little doubt that the EU has a long way to go to achieve a full ESDI. Although there are some two million soldiers in EU armies, members had trouble deploying just 2 percent of that number in Kosovo after the end NATO's air campaign. And in that campaign, three-quarters of the aircraft, four-fifths of the ordinance and most of the intelligence were provided by the U.S.