Europeanized defence – almost literally nothing new to report: 1 March 2010

Last week the BBC’s flagship news programme ‘Newsnight’ held a defence special – it is probably still available online. I was invited on to give a Europeanization perspective, but couldn’t make it for a series of incredibly banal and prosaic reasons (due apologies to my university and any impact points I’ve squandered to childcare)… Anyhow, one of the segments focused on Europeanization, and how it might provide some relief to the defence dilemmas of the day.

Now, as the author of the finest book on Europeanization by an author in my house, I feel able to make the following comments:

1) In local government there is an old maxim that there was one original thought in 1870 and it’s been copied every year since. And this is the same with European defence. Some stuffy old white men had some thoughts on it in the 1950s, and the thinking has got no further since. At all.

2) Now, in theory European defence or Europeanized defence should offer some advantages. The usual suspects are: more efficient use of money, non-duplication of function and equipment etc, projecting European power (so a force-multiplier) and every so often governments of all colour pop up and say this would be a splendid idea so long as the following 900 caveats apply. The most important caveat being, ‘we really can’t be bothered to make this work’.

And here in lies the rub. Because – to echo and morph David’s blog post title – everyone has their own incredibly important sacred cows to be protected, the whole process moves at a glacial pace. The cottage academic industry that spews banality and the word ‘whither’ around on this subject, keeps churning out that it’s all terribly difficult but if ‘marginal policy a’ was given a chance it might all become revolutionised.  Well, surely after fifty years this is clearly not the case.

But, with that in mind, it was refreshing to hear one line from Dr Liam Fox (Shadow Defence Secretary) on the Newsnight programme that might actually recognise what I think are some inalienable truths. To paraphrase the good Dr, the Tories are interested in talking to the Americans and the French about defence.

Yep, that’s it.

And why is this the recognition of an inalienable truth?

Well, because it recognises the futility of the European defence project as it is currently conceived. The problem of free-riders and no-riders. The free-riders who jolly well enjoyed the Cold War and not paying for their defence, and the no-riders who could do something on defence but it’s just all too difficult. And whilst we could easily name the countries that fit into one or both of these categories, that too is futile. What we can say is that the UK’s serious defence partners are the United States and France.

3) Ditching the riders (of both types) – so, in recognition of the futility of the project, as currently conceived, I’d advocate pursuing a vigorous agenda of doing nothing particularly pro-active with the ESDP/CSDP and instead finding common-ground, projects, equipment etc with the French and Americans. The NATO alliance can only be strengthened by a France which is fully involved in transatlantic projects.

4) The EDA is a good project – for its vision of deleting the gaps in European capabilities – and so I’d advocate remaining in that as well (the defence manufacturers will scream blue murder if there’s any talk of pulling out of it anyway). I think the UK does well out of the EDA too, so it’s wins all round.

But ultimately, even though there are noises in defence circles about ‘getting serious about Europe’, I still think there is a bitter pill to swallow. The isn’t a cat’s chance in hell that all of those governments are going to find even a hint of a meaningful lowest common denominator agreement that makes sense. So, whilst we’re still a big boy in the playground (and let’s face it, if the pound sinks without trace it’s not going to be guaranteed forever), let’s dictate some terms and see what we can shape for the good. It would seem to me that we have two willing allies, and not a lot to lose.

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