London, 28 October 1998 (RFE/RL) - The weekend call by Prime Minister Tony Blair for the EU to play a bigger defense role is a major shift from the policy of previous British governments which vetoed French and German plans for a joint EU military force.
Blair's offer to take the lead in creating a new EU defense force, made at the EU summit in Austria, was seen as a reminder that Britain still has a key role to play in Europe -- that its large military assets would be crucial to any common defense effort. The timing of the offer may be significant. Analysts believe Blair played the 'defense card' now because he fears Britain may be marginalized by its decision not to join the launch of the single European currency.
Blair says the proposed EU defense force could take up peace-keeping, or if necessary, combat roles, in crises such as those in former Yugoslavia. He stresses he does not want a standing army to be run from Brussels, but favors an approach that would allow members to work under the authority of NATO -- whose primacy he described as "paramount" -- without necessarily involving the U.S.
Blair says Europe was slow to act over the Kosovo crisis -- which he said prompted "dithering and disunity" within the EU -- and needs to develop its own defense capability to resolve conflicts on its doorstep without having to rely on the support of the U.S.
Rudolf Scharping, who took over as German defense minister yesterday, said he has already discussed Blair's ideas with his British and French counterparts. A Dutch official suggested that the Blair initiative is dictated by the need for Britain to make a "Euro-gesture" to balance its self-imposed exclusion from the Euro.
Britain is taking a wait-and-see attitude to the launch of the single currency by 11 of its EU partners on January 1.
Edward Foster, head of the European security program at the Royal United Services Institute, an independent London think-tank, says Blair is trying to represent Britain's case better in Europe:
"What apparently happened was that all British government departments dealing with Europe were told to use some imaginative thinking, to think the unthinkable, to find new ways in which Britain could represent its case better in Europe," Foster said. "It doesn't take very long to arrive at defense as one of the best cards the UK can play. Because whereas we're merely spectators for the time being in monetary union, it's impossible to conceive of European defense taking off in any sense if the UK is not included in it."
Whatever his motives in calling for "fresh thinking" by Europeans on defense, Blair may find himself pushing on an open door.
"It's something we expect to attract French approval because if you link the words, Europe and defense, you tend to get a positive reaction in France. It will be politely entertained by the Germans, certainly, because it is sort of 'Euro-friendly," Foster said.
But where will this open door lead? Some analysts say it could possibly lead to the eventual replacement of the Western European Union (WEU), a nominally defensive group that is an intermediary between NATO and the EU.
The WEU, founded in 1954, with headquarters in Brussels, is a largely dormant organization with an annual budget of only $39 million. But it includes as members, associates or observers from 28 countries, including states from Central and Eastern Europe.
Other analysts say that, if Blair's ideas are accepted, the WEU may become more important, emerging as the "new defense pillar" in the EU's architecture, an objective long urged by the French. The EU presently has three pillars: commerce and trade, foreign policy and security, and justice and home affairs. William Hopkinson, head of the international security program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, says the WEU could become the 'fourth pillar,' introducing a defense component into the EU for the first time.
"The actual military 'bang' would still be under the auspices of NATO, but you would have the political structures of the WEU in the EU. So the EU would be able through that pillar to address defense and certain harder security issues," Hopkinson said.
Still, there are some major difficulties. The neutral EU states, Ireland, Austria, Sweden and Finland, might oppose an EU defense role (although leading politicians in all the neutrals except Ireland want NATO membership). And, analysts ask, how could Norway and Turkey, both of them associates of the WEU, but not members of the EU, be linked militarily to a union that they may never join?
Moreover, the EU is preoccupied with the launch of the single currency and the enlargement process to include the East/Central Europeans, two of the largest 'Euro-projects' since the original Treaty of Rome. So although Foster believes the joint defense initiative is a good idea, he is not convinced it will lead to anything.
"It might be greeted politely, the sort of thing where they'll say, yes, we'll come back to you, but, dear Britain, we are enormously absorbed with monetary union at the moment and with eastern enlargement. The in-trays are enormously high and could we just keep this one as an idea to come back to at an appropriate moment?" Foster said.
But the Spanish head of the European parliament, Jose Maria Gil-Robles, quickly gave his support to the Blair initiative. He said EU member states will have to realize that they can only be treated as great powers if they act jointly rather than in isolation.