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EU: Brussels To Set Up Defense Agency

  • Ahto Lobjakas

The European Union yesterday took an important step toward consolidating its evolving security policy, approving a joint defense agency for capabilities development, research, and armaments. Although less controversial than some other EU defense plans, it appears that much will depend on what becomes of the new agency's currently vague mandate.

Brussels, 18 November 2003 (RFE/RL) � The main concern behind the drive toward an EU defense agency is often summarized in the observation that while the bloc's defense spending is about half of that of the United States, its returns amount to only 10 percent of what the United States gets for its money.

Antonio Martino, Italy's defense minister, who spoke for the current EU presidency yesterday, said that while the spending "deficit" was harder to reduce in the current economic conditions, Europe's "capacity deficit" with the United States has largely been the result of duplication -- or as he put it, "every country wanting to do its own thing."

Thus, the agency is attempting to at least stop the capacity gap from growing, if not reverse it. The EU's defense ministers yesterday set up a team which will submit proposals by April next year on the necessary legal, financial, and administrative measures, as well as the internal organization of the agency. The ministers hope to formally seal the creation of the defense agency in June, and officials say it should be "up and running" by the end of the next year. The task force, as well as eventually the agency itself, will be run by EU security policy chief Javier Solana.

Among other things, the agency will be tasked with building up additional defense capabilities for the EU. Martino said yesterday that this should not be seen as another attempt to compete with NATO, which is also in the process of reforming its capabilities:

"You should not look at the agency as antithetic to participation in NATO," Martino said. "Each country will have one force, and that force will be deployed either under NATO leadership or European Union leadership. So, the question is not that of looking at the two institutions as being in competition or antithetic. In a sense both will pursue missions of general interest and we will have to decide on a case-by-case basis which is better through NATO and which is better through Europe."

The capabilities in question, Martino said, will not be duplicated, as none of the European allies can afford two sets of capabilities.

Important questions remain, however. Martino seemed to suggest last night that the agency could become the "venue" for regular meetings of defense ministers -- who until now have not been formally empowered to take decisions binding on the EU.

It is also not clear if all member states will participate in the work of the agency. Martino yesterday said he believes all 25 member states should take part. Some, however, may not want to -- Denmark has the option to decline participation in EU defense cooperation, and the neutrals may feel reluctant as well. Some officials from the new member states have voiced fears their countries might yet find themselves shunned.

It appears the defense agency will allow for "horizontal cooperation" between a limited number of member states without necessarily involving all 25 member states.

A number of defense ministers, led by Britain's Geoff Hoon, yesterday also warned that any commitment to harmonize defense industries must not amount to a compulsion to "buy European." This is in contrast to the United States, where a new law obliges the administration to direct a certain part of its defense acquisitions to domestic companies.

The EU's defense ministers yesterday avoided open discussion on the controversial issues of how to organize "structured defense" cooperation among a limited number of member states, or whether to go ahead with setting up an operational planning headquarters separate from NATO.

Diplomats say French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie was alone in raising the issue of the headquarters in her speech, affirming once again that France backs an autonomous EU planning capability.

Hoon, however, told journalists afterwards that Britain retains a "principled objection" to a separate EU planning headquarters. He said he remains concerned that such a venture would be "inconsistent" with attempts to improve the EU's military capabilities:

"I think it would be expensive, it would be unnecessary, and, indeed, that it would duplicate existing capabilities. But crucially, and I think that this is the key to all of the arguments in this area, we don't judge that it would be militarily effective."
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