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EU: Military Presence Evolving, Despite Difficulties

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union is moving slowly toward defining a military role for itself in the world. Earlier this year, the bloc launched its first ever military operation, a peacekeeping mission in Macedonia. But the EU's plans are still unfocused. In particular, there are difficulties in finding agreement on how to mesh an EU defense posture with the NATO alliance, which has long been the guarantor of European security.

Prague, 9 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union is taking steps to define itself as a military power, despite the general upheaval in the bloc caused by the coming eastwards expansion and disagreements over Iraq.

Analysts say the past week has seen an important step forward, in that four EU members have apparently shelved their controversial plan to set up an independent military headquarters at Tervuren, in Belgium.

The plan was conceived by France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg at the height of tensions with the United States over Iraq. It was criticized by Washington and some other EU members as likely to de-couple European defense from NATO, the guarantor of European security for decades.

With Tervuren abandoned, Britain has dropped its opposition to the formation of what's being called an "avant-garde" or "hard-core" group of EU nations that wish to forge ahead with the bloc's defense posture.

Dan Keohane, a military expert with the Centre for European Reform in London, explains the significance of the "hard core."

"Basically it is similar to the euro [single currency project] and the Schengen [integrated border control project], in that countries which want to cooperate more closely can go ahead and do so. And by that I mean they can harmonize certain military standards, they can pool certain military capabilities, like a common air transport command," Keohane said.

What still remains is setting clear criteria for joining the "hard-core" group. British Prime Minister Tony Blair supports broad criteria which will quickly open the group to wide participation, presumably as a way of diluting any anti-American tendency among pro-Tervuren countries.

Keohane says some of the things that are still open for debate are whether membership criteria should be "things like the amount of money spent on defense as a percentage of GDP, or the amount of the defense budget spent on equipment, or should it be [a] willingness to carry out higher-intensity war-fighting tasks as opposed to peacekeeping?"

Keohane points out that these issues have to be resolved very soon, as the criteria are supposed to be incorporated in a protocol included in the EU's new constitutional treaty now being negotiated in Rome.

Despite the difficulties in conceptualizing the EU's defense role, on the ground the Union's military arm is gaining a degree of substance. For instance, the long-discussed EU rapid-reaction force became a reality in April when it deployed a small number of peacekeepers in Macedonia. As Keohane says, "There is no doubt that by actually taking on military operations, the EU has done far more to enhance the credibility of [the common European Security and Defence Policy], and done far more to develop it in some respects, than all the discussions over headquarters and so on and so on."

After the so-far-uneventful deployment in Macedonia came a hazardous but successful peacekeeping mission in the Congo. Now, on a much bigger scale, the EU wants to take over NATO's peacekeeping duties in Bosnia from next year.

The United States has not greeted this aim with enthusiasm, on the grounds that it could be risky to replace the tried-and-tested NATO force in Bosnia with the fledgling EU structure. Washington is also probably concerned that such a move could distance the EU from NATO.

The EU defense debate comes as NATO defense ministers gathered at an American military base this week to play out a fictional terrorist scenario to test the alliance's own rapid-reaction force, which is scheduled to launch in 2006.

Another move that appears likely to achieve greater European Union military integration is the decision this week by the bloc's defense ministers to establish a European Defense Agency to coordinate arms-procurement policies. Luke Hill, a Brussels-based analyst with Jane's military publishing group, says such steps are a sure sign EU military integration is advancing.

"In certain key areas, [the Europeans] are making progress. I do think that -- in areas such as air transport, precision-guided munitions, possibly frigates -- navies could even see collective organization of procurement there. [It is progress] on a limited basis, but it will grow," Hill said.

Also, the European Commission this week proposed common funding of $76 million to deepen defense-related research.

Hill says, "Eventually, this could be a billion-dollar [annual research] budget in which possibly all the major defense-related companies will be supplying nonmilitary security products and technologies and research to Europe."

Whatever happens, Britain in particular -- but also many of the Central and East European NATO members -- are keen to ensure that NATO stays at the center of European defense. Hence the opposition to a separate, independent military operational headquarters like Tervuren. As a compromise, Britain now supports an autonomous EU military planning capability, but not one entirely separate from the alliance. However, given the profusion of competing ideas and political pressures, it's too early to tell what the EU's final relationship with the alliance will be.