Europe's Military Ambitions - Myth or Reality ?

Dr Andreas-Renatus Hartmann

International Academic Conference

St. Petersburg State University

20 September 2002

For quite a long time there is a growing feeling among European defence experts that something is going deeply wrong with the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP).

This uneasiness started already last year when the European Council in December 2001 in Laeken declared the ESDP "operational", claiming that "the EU is now able to conduct some crisis management operations" and "will be in a position to take on progressively more demanding operations, as the assets and capabilities at its disposal continue to develop".

At that time, even the "Financial Times", a newspaper which normally does not deal with defense issues, felt the need to warn the EU in an editioral entitled "Beware of the misuse of language", stressing that "the double-speak of declaring the defence initiative operational is ill-judged and potentially counter-productive". For the Financial Times, the EU's defence-speak "creates a public expectation, which the EU member states are simply not in a position to meet". The EU - concludes the editorial - "has a hard road ahead before it can really claim to have an operational policy".

Since July this year, when the Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt wrote a letter to Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair, deploring that ESDP "has not been making much progress", the existence of a widening gap between claim and reality in European defence matters seems to get through even to some leading European politicians.

To many of them the dramatic wordening of the Belgian Prime minister's letter came as a real surprise. Nobody before Guy Verhofstadt had expressed in such a frank way his fears of a "renationalisation" of the EU's security and defence policy. Nobody before had felt the need to ask, like him, that the idea of a "Europe of Defence" be relaunched. And nobody before had dared, like he did, to call upon the French President and the British Prime Minister "to return to the spirit of St. Malo", where, in December 1998, the Franco-British summit was held which layed the foundations of what is now known as the European Security and Defence Policy.


The declaration, drafted in an unusual clear and assertive tone, stated that the EU needed "capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces, the means to decide to use them and a readiness to do so, in order to respond to international crisis".

In order to take action when the whole of NATO was not engaged, the EU - continued the declaration - "must be given appropriate structures and a capacity for analysis of situations, sources of intelligence and a capability for relevant strategic planning without unnecessary duplication" of the structures of NATO.

Everything should be done - concluded the declaration - so that "Europe can make its voice heard in world affairs" and can effectively contribute to "the vitality of a modernised Atlantic Alliance".

The seeds sown by the French President and the British Prime Minister four years ago in St. Malo grew extremely well because they fell on very fertile ground.

A succession of problems during the 90's, mostly in the Balkans, had led to a sense of shame in Brussels about the EU's incapacity to manage crises effectively. The Bosnian war from 92-95 proved particularly traumatic for the EU. Despite the West-Europeans' best efforts to negotiate a settlement and their commitment of thousands of troops to the UN peacekeeping force, Bosnia went up in flames. They needed NATO's military intervention to bring the war to an end. As a consequence, policy makers across Western Europe were determined to prevent a repetition of such a spectacular failure.

In March 1999 shortly after the British-French initiative had got under way, NATO went to war over Kosovo.

The three-month bombing campaign highlighted - once again - the inability of the Europeans to fight a sustained strategic campaign without the help from the Americans. As a result, Germany, which held the EU-presidency during the first half of 1999 succeeded in extending the St. Malo initiative to an EU-wide framework.

The Cologne Summit in June 1999 defined the Union's objective as a "European Security and Defence Policy", able to organise military missions for the following three purposes:

  • humanitarian and rescue tasks
  • peacekeeping tasks and
  • tasks of combat forces in crisis management including peacemaking.

These missions are also known as the Petersberg tasks after a hotel complex near Bonn where the Europeans defined them in 1992.

So that the EU could conduct theses operations effectively, the summit decided to establish a set of new institutions in Brussels:

  • A Political and Security Committee, consisting of high-ranking national representatives and coordinating the EU's Foreign and Security policy on a daily basis;
  • An EU Military Committee, made up of the national chiefs of staff, giving military advice to the Political and Security Committee;
  • An EU Military Staff, consisting of about 135 officers and support staff, preparing the deliberations and decisions of the Military Committee and the Political and Security Committee on defence issues.

The summit also agreed that European defence policies would require "the possibility of all EU member-states, including non-allied members, to participate fully and on equal footing in EU operations".

Thus, neutral countries like Sweden, Austria, Finland and Ireland gained full membership of the EU's defence structures.

While the Cologne summit in June 1999 decided on the institutional framework for European defence, the Helsinki summit of December 1999 tackled the issues of boosting the EU's military capabilities.

Under Finish leadership the EU's leaders signed up to a so called "headline goal", promising that by 2003 the member states should be able to deploy rapidly and then sustain a force of 50.000 to 60.000 men capable of the full range of the Petersberg tasks. This force - known as the European Rapid Reaction Force - should be military self-sustaining with the necessary command, control and intelligence capabilities, logistics, other combat support services and additionally, as appropriate, air and naval elements.

Member states should be able to deploy these forces within 60 days and must be able to sustain such a deployment for at least one year.

Last but not least the Helsinki summit also agreed to allow non-EU member-states to participate in operations of the European Rapid Reaction Force. This applies not only to Non-EU European NATO members like for instance Norway and Turkey or candidates for accession to the EU like for instance Poland and Estonia. According to the provisions of the Helsinki agreement "Russia, Ukraine and other European states engaged in political dialogue with the Union and other interested states may be invited to take part in the EU-led operations".

The ESDP kept developing at the same speed of light - at least measured by normal EU standards - in the year following the summits held in Cologne and Helsinki.

In March 2000, the institutions envisaged in Cologne - the Political and Security Committee and the Military Staff - began to operate on an interim basis.

One year later, in February 2001, the German General Rainer Schuwirth was nominated head of the EU's Military Staff. A couple of weeks later, General Gustav Hägglund, chieff of staff of the Finnish armed forces was elected chairman of the EU's Military Committee.

Shortly afterwards, the British, French and German governments made firm commitments to buy the Airbus A 400M military transport plane, showing thereby that they were serious about improving Europe's capacity to lift military cargo by air.



Sharp words were exchanged with the British, especially because of the prominence of the word "autonomous" in the declaration.

I will not reveal a great secret by telling you that the Americans, although in the past broadly sympathetic to the EU, had great problems with accepting the idea of an autonomous European defence. When, in December 1998, Clinton's advisers first heard about the St. Malo declaration, they were not amused.

The disagreement between the US and EU regarding how far the "Europeanization" of the Continents' defence should go boiled over during the run-up to the EU's December 2000 summit meeting in Nice.

Speaking at a NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels just prior to the Nice summit, then-secretary of defence William Cohen declared that if the EU created an independent defence capability outside the alliance's structure, NATO would be a "relic of the past".

The American suspicion that ESDP will rival NATO for supremacy in European security affairs was voiced even more bluntly by Senators Jesse Helms and Gordon Smith. After the EU's summit they warned that "European leaders should reflect carefully on the true motivation behind ESDP, which many see as a means for Europe to check American power and influence within NATO".

Senators Helms and Smith went on to warn that "it is neither in Europe's nor America's interests to undermine our proven national relationship in favour of one with a European superstate whose creation is being driven, in part, by anti-American sentiment".

The US desire to contain Europe's military ambitions was also expressed by then-secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who delienated what Washington deems as the acceptable limits of the EU's security initiative. In 1998, she observed that ESDP is "a very useful way to think about burden sharing in the Alliance". In November 2000, Albright greeted the EU's announcement that it was moving forward with the ESDP by commenting that this policy is welcome as a "valuable complement to the efforts and capabilities of NATO". To ensure that ESDP does not undercut NATO, Albright finally proclaimed the so-called Three D's:

  • The ESDP must not lead to a decoupling of the European defence efforts from NATO;
  • it must not duplicate NATO's capabilities and
  • it must not discriminate against NATO members that do not belong to the EU.

The message delivered to the EU by these three American D's was clear: For the U.S. all relevant EU institutions and forces have to be part of the European pillar inside the Atlantic alliance and not separate and competing entities.

Seen in this context, William Cohen's assertion that ESDP could turn NATO into a "relic" was clearly intended as a warning for the European Union: if it goes too far down the road to real autonomy in defence and security - that is, if it seriously challenges US preponderance in European security affairs - the Atlantic alliance could be shattered.

As far as the Bush administration is concerned, it became clear right from the beginning that key representatives of this administration were even more sceptical about Europe's military ambitions than their predecessors.

Several days after the Nice summit, John Bolton, who was then-vice president of the American Enterprise Institute and has since been nominated as under-secretary of state for arms control and international security affairs in the Bush administration, described the ESDP as "a dagger pointed at NATO's heart".

When Donald Rumsfeld, the new defence secretary attended a high level meeting of defence experts in Munich in February last year he did not attack the ESDP directly but declared that he was "a little worried". He said that the Europeans' plans should strengthen NATO, should not duplicate the alliance and should embrace non-EU members.

Other Republicans either doubt that the EU's plans will improve military capabilities or remain downright hostile to the whole project. Few in the US congress understand it. And many right-wing Republicans are vigorously opposed to a more autonomous European defence. They regard a strong Europe as inherently undesirable. They think that the US can more easily play off one EU member against another if Europe is divided. And they worry that a United Europe with an effective foreign, security and defence policy might challenge American leadership of the alliance and menace US ambitions in many parts of the world.

For them, ESDP is a culminating step of Europe's emancipation process and the "camel's nose in the tent" of US primacy.

Given this background, the US - EU controversy about Europe's millitary ambitions might be seen as the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Underlying the current discord are fundamental questions about the nature of the US-European relationship, about American grand strategy and about the alliance itself.

At the beginning of 2001 it looked inevitable that the new administration would have come to grips with these questions and especially with the question of whether NATO - in its current form - has a future. At that time, Europe's military ambitions - at least on paper - looked real and serious: the Europeans seemed to be more enclined to spend money on boosting military capabilities if they are going to be able to use them autonomously. They seemed to be ready to move towards strategic self-sufficiency. And the concept of the Rapid Reaction Force seemed to prove that they were concerned with military effectiveness and not only with institution-building.

Unfortunately, to this day, the Europeans did not live up to the high expectations risen four years ago in St. Malo and Brussels.

Certainly, the institutions of the ESDP are now all in place and working. Plans have even been drawn up for the Rapid Reaction Force's first mission. The budgetary dimension however - on which, ultimately, the entire project stands or falls - has been completely neglected, side-stepped or fudged.



When in November 2000 the European Union held an initial "Capabilities Commitment Conference" to meet the Helsinki summit's "Headline Goal" for the creation of its Rapid Reaction Force, the EU member states delivered what, at first sight, could have been considered to be an impressive pool of 100,000 troops, 400 combat aircraft and 100 warships.

Immediately afterwards, defence planners started working at converting these assets into a coherent fighting force, able to carry out, independently of the US, combat missions at the higher end of the Petersberg tasks. During this process, they came across a large number of serious obstacles and identified many deficiencies and gaps which need to be filled before the Rapid Reaction Force can acquire serious military credibility.

Based on these findings, a Capabilities Improvement Conference took place on 19 November 2001 under the aegis of an informal meeting of the EU defense ministers. It revealed some progress, but also the persistence of some serious short-comings, expecially in the field of strategic mobility assets (such as aerial refuelling and air transport), precision-strike munitions, electronic warfare, power projection (in the sens of long-range air and missile strikes), and what the US military calls C4ISR i.e. command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Despite these serious shortfalls, the EU defence ministers in a "Statement on Improving European Military Capabilities" claimed that "the EU should be able to carry out the whole range of Petersberg tasks by 2003". At the end of the conference, an action plan was adopted to speed up preparations so as to have the Rapid Reaction Force fully operational by mid-2003.

This optimistically worded statement and the hasty fixed timetable failed to satisfy most serious strategic analysts. Several major studies have in the meantime been conducted, all of which broadly concur that Europe's shortfalls are more serious than is officially recognised.

The real size of Europe's gap in defence capabilities becomes evident when comparing Europe's post-Kosovo efforts with the huge US defence build-up which started already long time before the events of September 11.

Broad-brush descriptions of the gap that divides the United States from its European allies are abundant. Most of them insist on the fact that, in round terms, Europe spends about 2% of its GDP on defense while the US spends 3%. Much more expressive, however, are figures released a couple of years ago by then-secretary of defense William Cohen, according to which "NATO (European) countries spend roughly 60% of what the United States does and get only about 10% of the capability. That has to change".

As François Heisbourg, who chairs the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, has pointed out, «with defence spending close to 60% of America's, the Europeans could in theory be expected to achieve 60% of US capabilities.

In reality, they are probably below 10% in the realm of strategic reconnaissance and theatre-level C4ISR, at substantially less that 20% in airlift capacity (by volume or tonnage) and possibly at less than 10% in terms of precision guided air-deliverable ordnance".

The origins of this gap are very well known and have to do with the fact that after the end of the Cold War most of the Europeans adapted only very slowly to the new circumstances and requirements. They continued to spent significantly more than the Americans on personnel and therefore proportionately less on procurement.

Moreover, they spent this smaller budget share less efficiently, partly because they have bought less and partly because they paid more for comparable weapons. Furthermore, the Europeans invested much less then the US in military research and development, and their efforts have for the most part been scattered and dispersed in a multitude of national programmes.

According to NATO secretary-general George Robertson, the Kosovo air campaign demonstrated just how insufficient and outdated Europe's military capabilities are and how dependent the Europeans had become on US military assets: "From precision-guided weapons and all-weather aircraft to ground troops that can get to the crisis quickly and then stay there with adequate logistic support, the European allies did not have enough of the right stuff. On paper, Europe has 2 million men and women under arms - more that the United States. But despite those 2 million soldiers, it was a struggle to come up with 40,000 troops to deploy as peacekeepers in the Balkans. Something is wrong, and Europe knows it".

While Europe's failure to reform most of its Cold War force structures and to spend its smaller defence budget more efficiently accounts certainly for a large part of the European capabilities short falls, Europe's lack of political will to invest in military forces, at levels approximating those in the US, is even more significant.

Although some EU defence ministers claim that the 1990s decline in European defence spending has been arrested and even in some cases reversed, interpretation of the figures is controversial. Most impartial analysts consider that, in real terms, particularly when calculated in constant US dollars, all