Shattered Hopes for a European Defense Community     Print Email


Le Monde | 03/31/11


It was an exceptional moment. The Libyan crisis presented Europe with an opportunity to test its “common defense and security policy.” The Mediterranean is considered one of the European Union’s “vital interests.” Europe has a duty to side with those who seek democracy. The EU could not stand idly by while young rebels to the Gaddafi regime were being massacred in Benghazi. Europe was assigned even greater importance, given the United States’ reluctance to be at the forefront of the crisis because U.S. strategic priorities are in the Persian Gulf, not the Gulf of Sidra.

This was an opportunity to test the Lisbon Treaty, which governs the EU’s operating rules, and has been in effect for one year. This treaty, which took effect in December of 2009, sets up a vast array of legal tools aimed at facilitating the defense of European foreign policy interests. One example of such tools is the new European External Action Service (EEAS), a 5000-employee organization whose mission is to represent the EU abroad; it is headed by High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, who also has military planning staff and a crisis management team at her disposal…

If there was to be consensus on military action, then every effort had to be made for such action not to be executed under NATO command, which is perceived as a sort of military branch for the “family of Western powers” – and therefore inappropriate to act by itself in a crisis centered on an Arab country. In many people’s eyes in the Arab world, NATO is synonymous with the U.S., which in turn is Israel’s closest ally…

However simplistic the reasoning, it still serves as an additional argument for a European-led operation (with the assistance of Arab and African countries).

In short, the Libyan crisis presented an “ideal” opportunity for the EU to assert itself as a major actor in the international arena. It was a test the EU couldn’t allow itself to fail, a rendez-vous not to miss.

So what happened? Two European countries, Britain and France, took the lead in the Libyan crisis. It was a great diplomatic and political performance, where the expertise of both the British Foreign Office and the French Quai D’Orsay became essential. President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister David Cameron quickly realized the strategic importance and significance of the Libyan crisis. They saw the logic of supporting anti-Gaddafi forces; they were experienced enough to remember the way Europe had been shamed by delay in the Balkans in the 1990’s. So they were the authors of the UN resolution authorizing armed intervention in Libya. The Royal Air Force and French Air Force will represent half of the strike force deployed over the Libyan coast while the rest will be provided by the United States (without which the British or the French might not have intervened).

Still, the European Union has failed miserably. Europe as an “entity” was unable to pass the test. It does not exist as such in this situation. Europe was unable to agree on what to do, how much recognition to extend to the Libyan opposition and, more importantly, on the legitimacy of using force. There was total disunity, most of all when the time came to make a decision on whether or not to go to war — that is to say, when the situation in Libya became tragic and it was time to rise above the traditional blather about human rights and get on with solving the humanitarian crisis.

Germany retreated to a position of neutrality, as we know, blocking the emergence of a tripartite front of Berlin-London-Paris alliance, which would have won support from other states. Eastern European countries voiced their own concerns: that the assistance funds they receive from the EU might be reduced because of the cost of getting involved in Libya and helping the Arab peoples.

The High Representative remained highly silent, but let’s not blame it all on Lady Ashton: her department is barely one year old, it is still being set up and seeking funding and administrative office space.

Even if High Representative Ashton wanted to take on the task of coordinating operations in Libya, the EU would not have had the capacity to do so. Her embryonic planning staff would not have been capable of dealing with a task of such magnitude. It  became unavoidable NATO would have to be relied on, at least for logistics. “The Libyan crisis has strikingly exposed the lack of a European defense policy: no ability to achieve a common political vision and no capacity to take on an operation of this kind,” says Bruno Tertrais from the Foundation for Strategic Research [an independent French think tank].

This state of affairs is liable to continue. All defense budgets in Europe—reflecting the ability to project power and a strong image, without which there is no foreign policy—are currently dwindling. European defense budgets are the first targets of the spending cuts necessary to rescue the euro -- while in developing countries, military spending is on a sharp rise.

Nicolas Sarkozy constantly asserts that Europe as a military force does not exist outside a French-British alliance: when foreign intervention requires the use of force, France and Britain are the only ones in Europe who step up to the plate. Is Sarkozy right? Up to a point. European foreign policy must be shaped by the procedural rules created under the Lisbon Treaty. Paris, however, while publically supporting these rules, indulges in media stunts and photo ops on the steps of the President’s office [after his bilateral meetings with foreign leaders].

In 2007, President Sarkozy explained that France’s return into NATO would help the “European defense” goal that Paris has promoted. The French could no longer be suspected of resisting the North Atlantic Organization and so they would be able to push for the agenda of an autonomous European defense. In fact, they have done nothing to achieve this.

This is how France, champion of "hard-power Europe,” came to lead the Libyan operation alongside Britain, a country that disagrees with French ambitions for Europe to have this capability of its own. History will remember this adventure as being led by two European countries, not by a united Europe. It is not the same thing.

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