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EU: Analysis From Washington -- A Question Of Credibility

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 31 March 2000 (RFE/RL)) -- The failure of European Union countries to provide the funds necessary for an independent rapid reaction force casts doubt on the EU's credibility as an actor on the international scene and may leave Europe and the world less secure than they were before.

That disturbing possibility has been raised in remarks by senior European Union officials at meetings in Brussels and Lisbon this week and undercuts expectations raised in December when EU leaders announced plans to develop their own independent force.

As outlined at a Helsinki summit at that time, this new force would consist of a core command and be able to mobilize within 60 days up to 60,000 soldiers from EU member countries in the event of a crisis.

Speaking to a session of EU defense ministers in Brussels on Wednesday, retired German General Klaus Naumann said that he had "serious doubts" about the ability of the European Union to create the rapid defense force by 2003 as the union's leaders announced in December.

More likely, Naumann added, creating the infrastructure for a new 60,000-strong force would take at least a decade. And he urged European defense ministers to focus on force planning requirements before convening a widely advertised "force generation" conference later this year.

And then yesterday (Thursday), speaking to a session of European Union leaders, NATO Secretary General George Robertson said that "European leaders put their own credibility very much on the line" when they announced plans for an independent rapid deployment force. And now they must either live up to their commitments or face new questions about them.

"The message I have been putting over is: 'I read your lips. Now you must deliver'," Robertson said, noting that he was especially concerned about German plans to cut defense spending in order to improve economic performance.

"The big countries have got to show the example," he continued, noting that he was "frustrated" but "still hopeful." However, he added pointedly that the United States is becoming ever more impatient with the shortcomings of the European defense effort.

On the one hand, these criticisms by NATO officials are nothing new. Washington has been critical of the failure of the Europeans to carry their own weight in the Balkans -- but equally nervous of the possibility that a separate EU defense capability could undermine NATO itself, possibly splitting Europe and the United States apart at key junctures.

But on the other, the failure of the European countries to provide the funds for defense raises three broader issues which are likely to cast a shadow on European security more generally and on the EU as a political institution in the future.

First, the failure of the EU countries to increase defense spending to pay for this new force highlights the extent to which they are unwilling to put the requirements of the European Union above national interests and domestic concerns.

It has been relatively easy for the leaders of EU countries to strike poses about greater defense efforts and an independent European force, but it is proving far more difficult for them to get the funds needed to back up such a policy from their national parliaments.

Second, this failure and the likelihood that NATO will remain the key element of European security for at least the next decade place new strains on the Western alliance. Many Americans are upset with Europe's unwillingness to bear its share of the defense burden in the new, post-cold war environment.

At the same time, both Americans and Europeans anxious to integrate Russia into Europe are likely to find ever more reasons not to build up the rapid reaction force. According to a Russian poll released on Thursday, 56 percent of all Russians now consider NATO to be an "aggressive" institution, up from 38 percent having that view 13 months ago.

Thus there will be growing pressure on both sides of the Atlantic to dismantle or further transform NATO, even before the EU has its defense architecture in place. In that interim, more leaders may challenge the international order, and fewer leaders are likely to look to either NATO or the EU as a reliable means of defense.

And third, the failure of the EU to live up to its very public commitments on a common defense strategy almost certainly will have a corrosive effect on other efforts by the European Union to move toward greater political integration.

Indeed, this failure, which appears unlikely to be reversed anytime soon, may trigger ever more questions within EU countries about the viability of that institution as a more tightly organized community. At the very least, it is likely to make it more difficult for those committed to a tighter EU to generate support for their supranational plans.

All three of these consequences in turn will leave Europe and the broader world less secure and more unstable than it was before the European leaders committed themselves to moving in just the opposite direction.