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France: Paris Seeks To Coordinate European Defense Spending

France has proposed a "convergence pact" that would commit European Union members to minimum levels of spending on defense. The proposal, made in Paris by Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, aims to coordinate defense spending and reduce the chronic fragmentation in the European defense industry. But can it help Europe from falling even further behind the United States in military matters?

Prague, 4 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- France has called for greater coordination in European Union defense spending and for the creation of a new pan-European arms agency.

The call, from Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, comes at a time when the EU's efforts to build a common defense capability remain mired in confusion.

The minister proposed a "convergence pact" that would commit EU members to minimum levels of spending on defense as a proportion of their gross domestic product. She said it is necessary for European countries to have the financial means to "move forward" on defense issues.

She did not specify what level of defense spending she had in mind. At present, European countries, excluding neutral countries such as Ireland, spend between 2 and 4 percent of GDP on defense, but experts say the money is not being particularly well used. The United States, for instance, spends 4 percent of its GDP on defense but is drawing ever further ahead of EU countries in its defense capabilities.

London-based security analyst Alexandra Ashbourne said: "I've just returned from America, and one of the comments made there is that the Europeans should not waste money on buying outdated capabilities. They don't necessarily need to spend more on defense, but they need to spend it better, and one of the [key] things on which they need to spend it better is research and development."

Ashbourne said Alliot-Marie's idea is a good one, but she noted that it's not new, having first been aired some years ago. It was not acted upon at that time, and she said she does not expect EU members to adopt it now, either.

The French minister also proposed the creation of a pan-EU armaments agency that would coordinate joint defense projects involving more than one EU member state. Assessing this, Dan Keohane, a security analyst at the Centre for European Reform in London, said: "The question is, not every country in the EU would be likely to participate in an armaments agency because not every country will necessarily be participating in multinational programs. It would be primarily a venture involving the major arms-producing members. That's the political difficulty [with such an agency], but that can be worked out. But one has to bear in mind that when the membership of the EU rises to 25 states, this might become politically a little more difficult."

The French initiative comes at a time when the EU's efforts to create its own military capability, generally known as a rapid-reaction force, continue to be embarrassingly stalled. A dispute between Greece and Turkey, which has lasted many months, is blocking access by the new force to NATO's military-planning facilities. The first planned assignment of the force, namely in a peacekeeping role in Macedonia, has had to be put off.

Meanwhile, to rub salt in the EU's wounds, last month's NATO summit in Prague went ahead and decided to create a 20,000-man rapid-response force of its own. Some analysts say this new NATO capability renders the EU plan redundant.

The lengthy blocking of the EU's rapid-reaction force appears to have led to European thoughts flowing in other directions. Ashbourne said that since the NATO summit, there seems to be renewed pressure from France to push Franco-German cooperation on a joint defense force. "Their suggestion of this very dominant Franco-German axis, with specifically European command-and-control systems, could only weaken NATO rather than strengthen it. And that would be a shame for all the new [Central and Eastern European members] who have just made it in [to NATO] after so long," Ashbourne said.

In addition, France and Germany have just agreed to seek to have written into the new European constitution now being prepared a mutual security commitment among the European Union states. It would apparently be similar to NATO's Article 5, under which an attack on one member is considered an attack on all.

Analysts say such a reference in the new constitution would presuppose that the EU is a military alliance, a perception that could also tend to weaken the NATO alliance.

However, analyst Keohane sees the matter differently. He said the word "security" should not be construed as meaning primarily a military commitment. "It is a much broader kind of collective-security guarantee against nonstate actors that can range from terrorists to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It can even range to natural disasters," Keohane said.

He therefore does not see this as a threat to NATO and its traditional role as the military guarantor of peace in Europe.