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EU: Military Ambitions Still Muddled

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Four European Union countries have launched a new joint defense initiative that foresees a command structure independent of NATO. The four nations are Germany, France, Belgium, and Luxembourg -- all of which opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The initiative has ruffled the feathers of the United States, which says it could weaken the tried-and-tested trans-Atlantic alliance. But it's not yet clear whether the new move represents an important new development, or whether it will just add to the already confused picture of EU defense efforts, RFE/RL reports.

Prague, 22 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Germans have a wonderfully descriptive title for a military bureaucrat -- "schreibtisch hengst." It means "desk stallion" and would typically be used to describe a staff officer who devises bold strategies at his desk that are then left to the mud-spattered troops in the field to translate into action.

Up till now, the European Union's common security policy has had some of the characteristics of the "schreibtisch" officer -- much paperwork and bold intentions, but little change in military realities on the ground.

However, there has been fresh movement on the issue this week. Defense ministers from the European Union said the bloc's new rapid-reaction force is ready to take on peacekeeping operations, even though it remains limited in its capabilities. A small peacekeeping contingent is already operating in Macedonia.

At a Brussels ministerial meeting, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said the force, envisioned as comprising 60,000 troops, is still months away from meeting its goal of being able to deploy fully within 60 days. It suffers from lack of essential equipment, such as heavy airlift capabilities and intelligence-gathering resources. EU members have pledged to make up those deficits rapidly.

Several years have passed since French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed at a bilateral summit in Brittany that the EU should develop its own defense capability. Most of the intervening time has been taken up with wrangles with NATO member Turkey over access to NATO military planning facilities.

The United States and Britain worked -- in the end, successfully -- to ensure the EU force would be integrated into NATO planning to avoid duplication of effort, but also, on a political level, to prevent it from going off on adventures of its own.

Now, in a separate development, four EU member states have broken with that concept. The four, which opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq, are Germany, France, Belgium, and Luxembourg. They agreed at a summit last month to create a multinational headquarters next year and to establish the "nucleus of a collective operational planning and command" center.

The command center would be located in Tervueren, a forested area on the outskirts of Brussels, and would be separate from NATO, headquartered on the other side of Brussels, at Evere.

Dan Keohane, a London-based security analyst at the Center for European Reform, says, "This idea of a separate operational planning headquarters is extremely controversial, particularly as it comes so soon after the EU finally reached formal agreement with NATO [on the use of planning facilities]."

Keohane says it's clear that part of the motivation is political. The four countries, however, deny they want to distance themselves from the U.S.-dominated NATO and say they hope other EU countries will join their initiative.

Another analyst, Ian Kemp of the Jane's military publishing group, also says trans-Atlantic tensions are at the heart of the matter.

"Clearly, this was in part a political reaction to the split which developed within the European Union and within the European members of NATO as a result of the Iraqi crisis. And clearly the danger -- as perceived by those EU members and European NATO members who were not involved -- is the development of another grouping inside the European Union and inside NATO," Kemp says.

Both analysts tend to doubt, however, that the "Gang of Four" -- as the Franco-German grouping has been called -- will press their independence-minded initiative far enough to cause an open breach with the United States or its closest ally, Britain.

Kemp notes the decades of bonding between the United States and Western Europe: "It's highly unlikely [to cause a breach]. All of these nations have multiple commitments to NATO and to the European Union. They are integrated into formations within NATO. For instance, the most obvious instance of this would be the Dutch-German corps, elements of which are now commanding the [security] operation in Afghanistan."

Keohane says there is, in any event, a case to be made in the long run in favor of the EU having its own independent military operational planning capabilities, so that it can deal with situations in which NATO no longer wants to be involved, such as the Balkans. He notes tentative moves within NATO to give the alliance a global role rather than a purely European sphere of activity.

Alternately, Keohane suggests that Germany and France may even be inclined to let their initiative stagnate from now on, in so far as the main drive for the 29 April summit was Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who was facing an election and wanted to ride a popular wave of opposition to the Iraq war.

Keohane says they could possibly be persuaded to give up the idea of an independent command structure in return for pro-integration moves by other EU powers.

"For example, if they could convince the British to sign up to more pooling of military capabilities, that would be seen as a major development for improving the military effectiveness of EU capabilities," Keohane says.

He says the creation of an EU air transport command is something the French and Germans have been particularly keen on, but the British have held back for fear that too great a force commitment to the EU could decrease their ability to operate in conjunction with U.S. military forces.

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