EU's common defense policy slowly taking shape

2nd October 2008, Comments 0 comments

It is also a telling sign that after 60 years of economic and political cooperation, EU member states are still having to rely on potential foes to fill shortages in their military capabilities.

Deauville, France -- Imagine accepting a loan from someone with whom you've just had a nasty argument.

That is what the European Union is forced to do at the moment.

Two days before the bloc's defense ministers met in Normandy to discuss a common defense policy, the head of their peacekeeping mission in Chad, General Patrick Nash of Ireland, confirmed that he would soon be getting four, much-needed transport helicopters from Russia.

Instead of cold-shouldering Russia over its invasion of neighboring Georgia, EU diplomats warmly welcomed Moscow's offer of help.

"It is very telling that we are able to conduct business with Russia despite political tension," said the spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

It is also a telling sign that after 60 years of economic and political cooperation, EU member states are still having to rely on its potential foes to fill shortages in their military capabilities.

Telling, but understandable.

After all, the EU was born out of the rubble of World War II, which pitted its largest nations against each other. The suffering that provoked shaped EU attitudes about war for generations to come.

A September Harris poll for the Financial Times found that most Germans, Italians and Spaniards would oppose sending their troops to defend the Baltic nations from a Russian attack, despite their country's obligation to defend fellow members of NATO.

The same poll also found that a clear majority of western Europeans remain firmly opposed to increased spending on defense by their governments.

Estimates suggest the United States will spend 583 billion dollars on its military this year -- nearly double the combined 2007 defense spending of the 27 countries that make up the EU.

Of its biggest members, only France and Britain invest more than 1 per cent of their yearly gross domestic product in the military. Fellow members Ireland, Finland, Austria and Sweden, meanwhile, proudly defend their neutrality.

France has made strengthening the EU's common defense policy one of its priorities while it holds the bloc's rotating presidency. It has much work ahead.

On Wednesday, the bloc's defense ministers met to discuss its future in Deauville, a French resort just 20 kilometers away from the D-Day beaches where anti-Nazi American and British forces landed in 1944.

Lack of money and other commitments involving NATO and the United Nations have all conspired to create an EU which badly lacks the resources needed to establish itself as a major military force.

And the Russian offer of help has once again exposed a chronic shortage of helicopters in a continent that has no shortage of makers -- AgustaWestland and EADS just to mention a few.

According to Peter Felstead, editor of Jane's Defense Weekly, one of the EU's biggest problems is that governments are reluctant to do anything that might weaken their countries' military industries.

"A common European defense policy can only go so far before you run up against national interests," Felstead told DPA.

In his invitation letter, French Foreign Minister Herve Morin invited colleagues to come up with a list of forces to which their respective countries would be willing to contribute. He also urged them to explore ways of pooling resources at a time of economic slowdown.

The EU's complex decision-making structure is another problem.

For instance, the bloc has two battle groups, consisting of 1,500 soldiers each, ready to be deployed at short notice anywhere in the world. But officials complain that bureaucracy has blocked their use so far.

And yet, there are signs that the EU's common defense policy may be beginning to produce results.

While in Deauville, ministers declared the EU's four-year-old military mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina "accomplished" and prepared the groundwork for the deployment of a small warship fleet tasked with defending commercial vessels from attacks by pirates off the Somali coast.

They also backed joint initiatives involving helicopters, aircraft carriers, the A400M military transport aircraft and discussed an exchange program for military officers shaped after the popular Erasmus program for students.

"These are all very concrete projects," Morin said Wednesday.

But as one official in Brussels notes, the EU's common defense policy is "clearly a long-term project."

-- Nicholas Rigillo/DPA/Expatica

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