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EU: NATO-Russia Accord May Accelerate Defense Integration

  • Ahto Lobjakas

NATO's decision at last week's Reykjavik meeting of foreign ministers to set up a joint cooperation council with Russia increases pressure on the European Union to assert itself as an autonomous actor in global politics. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell added to the urgency in Reykjavik, warning that European allies must pull their weight in NATO. EU officials, military officers, and analysts in Brussels seem to agree that the EU is ready to take up the gauntlet.

Brussels, 20 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The NATO-Russia cooperation accord approved in Reykjavik last week has thrown into sharp relief the European Union's difficulties in establishing itself as a credible force in world affairs.

The EU has so far been unable to work out a deal giving its embryonic defense project access to vital NATO assets and capabilities that the EU member states themselves lack. EU defense ministers have been unable to persuade Greece to drop its objections to a deal struck late last year with its longtime rival Turkey. Greece fears the deal gives Turkey too much influence over EU defense policy.

In the longer term, the very absence of key modern defense capabilities in the EU has led to a growing gap with the United States and has increasingly undermined trans-Atlantic dialogue.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell urged the European allies in Reykjavik to develop capabilities necessary for tackling new risks like terrorism and regional crises. U.S. officials in Reykjavik said Europe particularly needs to work on its strategic airlift abilities, precision-guided-weapons programs, surveillance, air-to-air refueling, tactical missile defense, and command and control facilities.

Last Friday, NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said that an unsustainable "division of labor" is emerging whereby the United States provides the costly key capabilities and the "lower-tech allies provide the soldiers or wring their hands on the sidelines."

However, analysts point out that the EU is far from united in its efforts to assert itself alongside the United States and Russia.

Marc Houben of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) said the EU is hampered partly by differing enthusiasm among member countries for defense integration, and partly by the presence of four non-NATO neutrals (Finland, Sweden, Ireland, and Austria) within its ranks.

"The problem is, within old NATO, there was a very clearly and narrowly defined mission. The member states have been able to rally themselves behind that mission for 40 years. Now, with both the admission of new members and the extension of new tasks, it becomes increasingly important and increasingly difficult to establish that consensus. We might even see the development that it becomes almost impossible to arrive at a consensus, and then one has to seek recourse to these institutional mechanisms of 'enhanced cooperation' and things like that," Houben said.

"Enhanced cooperation" is a principle endorsed by the EU's Nice summit in December 2000 that allows some member countries to proceed with further integration in certain areas ahead of others not willing to cede sovereignty. However, the Nice treaty specifically rules out "enhanced cooperation" on defense.

The immediate concerns of EU officials in Brussels appear to have more to do with carving out territory for the bloc's defense ambitions than improving capabilities.

In early May, the chairman of the Military Committee of the European Union, General Gustav Hagglund, called for a new common security system for Europe and the U.S., under which the EU and the European parts of NATO would be linked and would deal with crises in Europe and nearby. According to Hagglund, the new EU-NATO partnership would also engage in long-term operations outside Europe.

Marc Houben of CEPS said the NATO-Russia accord is likely to have increased the attraction of this idea.

"The suggestion of creating an EU 'caucus' within NATO is an obvious one, because it would offer the possibility of creating a dialogue in a strategic triangle: the EU, America, and Russia. In principle, this is an important and substantial way forward," Houben said.

Houben doubts, however, whether EU member states can reach a consensus on the issue.

Another high-ranking EU military official indicated last week that the increasingly "unilateralist" position of the United States in global affairs leaves the EU little choice but to push on with defense integration.

Speaking off the record in Brussels, the official said closer European cooperation in security policy is the only way to give Europe a stronger voice and more credible negotiating position on the world stage. As he said, "The United States is unwilling to listen to weak partners."

He was seconded on Friday by Friedbert Pflueger, who chairs the Committee for European Affairs in Germany's Bundestag. Also speaking in Brussels, Pflueger expressed concern that the recent rapprochement between the United States and Russia risks "marginalizing" Europe.

Pflueger said it is "absolutely inevitable" that an enlarged EU, with its 500 million inhabitants and a common currency, will play a global security role. He said the EU must develop militarily and avoid becoming what he called a "paper tiger."