Point of View: Time for Europe’s Leaders to Talk Strategy

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By Ben Jones

Last Wednesday Baroness Ashton, the EU High Representative, launched her report on the Common Security and Defence Policy. The paper is intended to inform a discussion that EU leaders will hold at their upcoming December European Council summit. While the eurosceptics will doubtless recoil at the EU’s having any role in such matters, and while for others the paper will be seen as too timid, on the whole the report strikes a good balance between pragmatism and ambition. With the economic crisis dominating European summits for the last five years, December’s meeting is a long-awaited opportunity for debate and action on much-overlooked strategic concerns.

There is much in the paper that a pragmatic, pro-European British government should welcome and should champion. Unfortunately, because of a hostile or disinterested media and deep divisions within the Conservative party over the UK’s EU membership, the report and the summit have not yet got the attention deserved. In fairness, the launch was partly over-shadowed by a press conference from Ashton herself on the on-going negotiations she is leading with Iran. But the longer-term issues dealt with in the paper are just as vital to European security.

It is clear from the ‘strategic context’, set out in the report’s opening pages, that the coming decades will be high stakes for Europe. The future will be “marked by increased regional and global volatility, emerging security challenges, the US rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific and the impact of the financial crisis.” This is not an uncontroversial assessment of Europe’s position, and indeed probably reflects the internal analyses of every member state.

Officially the report is concerned with the particular role and contribution of the CSDP. It rightly highlights the CSDP’s more impressive achievements. The anti-piracy mission, Operation Atalanta, has “drastically reduced the scourge of piracy off Somalia”. Security capacity building programmes in Mali, Somalia, Kosovo and elsewhere, are of increasing importance as a tool, and likely to become even more so in the future. The CSDP is rightly recognised as having a comprehensive approach to security that economic, military or development tools cannot deliver in isolation. Yet, there is still confusion as to what exactly the CSDP should focus on.

Part of the problem is that strategic issues for Europe are much broader than can be understood through the remit and tools of the CSDP alone. The EU has an important role in defence and security cooperation, but NATO and bilateral arrangements such as Franco-British defence cooperation are equally if not more important when it comes to hard-edged military cooperation. So the report is right to highlight that the EU and NATO need to work together more effectively.

And the report is right to acknowledge that much-needed cooperation on ‘pooling and sharing’ military capabilities will take place beyond, as well as through, the EU. The report concentrates on pragmatic priorities for cooperation in key military enablers, all of which are geared towards maintaining and even increasing the capacity of cash-strapped Europeans to act, as the US turns its attention to Asia-Pacific. The role of the European Defence Agency as a cooperation broker and facilitator in cooperation is emphasised.

So although in some ways unavoidable, it can also be counter-productive to pigeonhole European security matters into EU, NATO or bilateral relationships. When European leaders meet for their December summit, they will not have a credible discussion if they don their CSDP hats and forget about their NATO or bilateral roles. They are European leaders with a responsibility to tackle European security concerns. Although the diplomats might fret, they should talk about these issues in the round.

Other actors in the world, whether rising powers, terrorist organisations, organised criminal gangs or fragile states in the Middle East and North Africa do not see the world through these institutional lenses. Neither do the trends that Europe faces – increasing economic competition, changing demographics, new technologies, increasingly expensive military capability, cyber crime, climate change – in any way map neatly onto Europe’s complex security architecture. Perhaps in the old certainties of the Cold War the economic-military division of labour between the EU and NATO worked well, but today it makes much less sense.

For this reason, European leaders should make an attempt, however pragmatic, however cautious at this stage, to begin to articulate European interests and European strategies for dealing with this fast-changing world and the challenges it is bringing. The EU, in partnership and consultation with NATO allies, is the right forum in which to do this.

And given Britain’s history, with its military, diplomatic and cultural resources, it really ought to be our government that plays a leading role in that discussion. It would be a shame if an odd, ideological opposition to anything with the word ‘Europe’ in it were to stifle the British contribution. Pragmatism and realism are welcome, ideology, less so.  It is to be hoped then that December’s summit conclusions will produce realistic but fruitful discussions and a credible road map for deeper and smarter European cooperation on defence and security.

Ben Jones chaired the Liberal Democrat Working Group on Europe, which produced the paper Prosperous, Sustainable and Secure. He is a post-graduate researcher at King’s College, London and a Director at Interel. This article was originally posted on the British Influence blog.