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An EU HQ? Let Them At It

Daniel Keohane
Commentary, 11 October 2016
NATO, Brexit Briefings, European Union, UK, International Institutions
The debate about the EU military headquarters is not as vacuous as some of its British critics claim, although it has undoubtedly been given a new lease of life by the Brexit vote. Still, the UK would be well-advised to drop its vociferous opposition to the scheme, even if it continues to entertain doubts about its viability.

During her recent visit to the UK, Germany Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen asked the British not to block EU efforts to build deeper security and defence cooperation. Her comments followed British criticism of Franco-German plans to build an EU headquarters and suggestions that London might block such a measure, as long as it remained in the EU.

There is a whole bundle of post-Brexit vote politics at play here, for which the HQ issue has become something of a lightning rod. The 27 other EU governments are keen to show some unity and that the bloc remains relevant for their citizens, especially for their security. Plus, although it is not entirely fair to blame the UK for the EU’s lack of progress on military matters, cheerleaders for EU defence policy – and not only in Berlin and Paris – have seized on the Brexit vote as a golden opportunity to relaunch that policy.

The idea of an EU HQ has a particular symbolic value. France and Germany have long tabled this proposal, most notoriously during the fallout from the Iraq war in 2003, when Berlin and Paris threatened to create a de facto EU military headquarters (a late 2003 Franco-British-German deal watered down the idea to a tiny ‘planning cell’). Following France’s return to the NATO military command in 2009, many in Paris assumed that London would drop its objections to an EU HQ. But the UK continued to block the idea.

But it would be wrong to think, as many EU defence sceptics do, that today this is all about political symbolism. There are strategic and practical operational factors to consider as well.

Strategically, European governments in both NATO and the EU face an unprecedented confluence of security crises, ranging from an unpredictable Russia to conflicts across the Middle East, which are generating internal security challenges such as terrorist attacks and refugee flows. Aside from their complexity, one key new dimension of this set of security challenges is that Europeans now have to simultaneously defend their territories and manage external crises.

In addition, the US does not want to be solely responsible for putting out all of Europe’s fires; it expects its allies to take on more of the security burden. And no European country can cope alone. EU governments want NATO – meaning the US – to continue to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. But there is a growing strategic need for Europeans to manage some security challenges by themselves. Recognising this, EU members have sent military ships to Mediterranean waters to tackle people-smuggling. This need might help explain why the British defence secretary recently said that after its departure from the EU, the UK could continue to contribute to EU operations in the Western Balkans, the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. 

Aside from doing some of the things that NATO does not want to do, on a practical level the EU is also trying to be better able to do things that NATO cannot do. What distinguishes the EU from NATO is the former’s aim to have a truly ‘integrated approach’ to security, in large part because of its ability to direct development spending alongside deploying civilian security personnel – such as police, judges and border monitors – as well as soldiers to crisis zones.

In other words, EU defence policy is not really a defence policy. It does not defend European territory from attack by external states, as NATO does. Instead, it is the military component of EU international security policies.

The EU has mainly concentrated so far on small humanitarian and state-building operations, the majority of which have been civilian deployments. Furthermore, the EU has not yet carried out a military operation approaching anything comparable in scale or intensity to NATO or UN operations, for example in Afghanistan or the DRC. In 2015, only around 3,000 armed forces personnel were deployed on EU military missions.  

This is why France and Germany emphasise that any new EU HQ would be a civil–military command structure, not a Euro-replica of SHAPE, NATO’s military HQ. As an EU official explained to this author: ‘an EU HQ would eventually have around 500 civilian and military personnel maximum, nothing like SHAPE’s 5,000 in size, and not the same operational function’.

In addition, the EU’s current system for managing military operations is very unwieldy. In principle, the EU can call on five national HQs scattered across the Union, as well as NATO’s SHAPE (if available). In practice this has not always worked well.

For example, the EU’s refugee-protection mission in Chad during 2008–2009 was run from the French military HQ at Mont Valérien outside Paris. Senior Irish and Polish commanding officers complained to this author of sometimes having to take the Thalys train to Brussels a few times a week to ensure effective coordination with the EU’s non-military efforts, such as those of the European Commission’s humanitarian aid and development directorates. It is such inefficiencies, as well as the need to ensure greater effectiveness of EU efforts on the ground, that a civil–military HQ would be designed to address. If an EU HQ were the start of a road to an EU army or an EU military alliance that would undermine NATO, the UK government would be right to block it. But it is not.

Von der Leyen stressed last week that this was not about creating a European army. And can anyone really imagine a French president giving up sovereignty over France’s armed forces (including its nuclear weapons)? Central and Eastern European EU members do not want NATO’s credibility undermined in the face of the threat from Russia, and some other countries would veto an EU military alliance. Non-aligned Ireland, for example, would have to hold a (unwinnable) referendum if Dublin did not veto it.

All this might explain why NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has welcomed the Franco–German proposals on EU defence. At a recent informal meeting of EU defence ministers in Bratislava, Stoltenberg highlighted that there is no contradiction between strong European defence and a strong NATO, noting that both are mutually reinforcing. The UK government hardly needs to be more Catholic than NATO’s pope.

Some also worry, and not only in London, that proposals such as an EU HQ will divert attention and valuable resources from NATO efforts. But this is no longer a simple ‘either/or’ choice.

As well as through the EU and NATO, European governments act in many ways to cope with current security challenges, such as via ad hoc coalitions, for example the operation in Iraq and Syria against Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS or ISIL); via the UN (as in Lebanon); or nationally (France in Mali).

Moreover, the EU has initiated over 30 civilian and military operations since 2003, and it makes sense for the Union to conduct these as efficiently and effectively as possible.

All in all there is not much point in London threatening to veto an EU HQ. It will almost certainly happen anyway after the UK has left the EU. It also needlessly antagonises France, Germany and others at a time when the UK has much more important things to negotiate with its EU partners. Instead, London should wish its EU partners well and let them at it, safe in the knowledge that the UK can no longer be blamed for any future lack of progress on EU defence policy.

Daniel Keohane is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zürich. 

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