A European Union Foreign Legion?

Outgoing US defence secretary Robert Gates has told European audiences some harsh but true realities about Europe’s failure to take its defence committments seriously here. After reading his remarks, I decided to repost below some thoughts I posted last year about how Europe could get more military bang for its buck.

Europe, for historical reasons, doesn’t do military well. Even the two most militarist countries, France and Britain, with populations willing to spend a significant portion of public spending on defence, are only marginally impressive by global standards, and that image is added to by their  impressive but essentially useless nuclear weapons programmes. There is not a single European country that could fight a major long-term war or policing action outside its borders without US assistance (Note: This was written before the Libyan intervention. I see no reason to amend it).

Now, that’s not a major issue. The fact is, Europe tends to use its economic power as a means of strong-arming others, and as the US has shown, the ability to use overwhelming military force tends to make the US constantly underestimate her military opponents. Her opponents know that whilst the US can bring overwhelming force down upon pretty much any point on the globe, the US does not have long-term staying power. The Taliban know the truth about its own propaganda: The US is not in the long term empire business, because the American people will not tolerate an open-ended ongoing stream of casualties. American wars must have a spectacular beginning and a tidy Our Boys Are Home ending.

This doesn’t take away from the fact, nevertheless, that Europe’s lack of military capacity has weakened its ability to project its own values. Europe could not even resolve the Yugoslavia crisis that occurred on its own doorstep, primarily because it lacked the military infrastructure but also because whilst there was a European interest in restoring peace to the former republic (If only, in pure selfish terms, to save EU member states the burden of taking in refugees) there was no concept of European burden sharing. German or British or French troops going into action against Serbia may well have triumphed, but not without heavy casualties and their people asking why they should carry the burden for “Europe”.

What is the solution? There is no appetite in Europe for an increase in defence spending, for obvious recession related reasons, and that is a reality. However, the fact is that the EU member states (excluding non-EDA member Denmark) spent a very significant €201 billion on defence in 2007, when the US spent €491 billion (and China approx €49 billion in 2009). But what is telling is the breakdown. The US spends €102,000 per soldier, whilst the EU spends a paltry €20,000 per soldier. This figure is misleading, because the EDA member states actually have more troops than the US, at 1.9 million troops to the US’s 1.4 million, but it confirms that Europe is not getting anywhere near the same bang for its buck because of duplication across the continent as opposed to the targeted spending used in the US.

The traditional response has been to merge Europe’s defence forces, to create a European Army, but there is almost no political or public support for such an action. Supposing instead Europe looked at the problem from a more creative point of view. Supposing instead the member states decided to create a stand-alone EU rapid deployment force (EURDF) comparable to an American airborne division. Answerable to the European Council, and deployable only with the consent of all the member states, the force could be made up of volunteers (Does anyone believe it could not recruit the thousands of young men and women needed?)  from across Europe, and although initially commanded and trained by officers seconded from EU national armies, the force could eventually develop its own officer training academy and officer corps. Primarily it would be a military force focussing on short, sharp but heavily armed deployments on behalf of the EU and the United Nations. If such a force had existed in the 1990s, and rapidly deployed to stop Serbia providing weapons to the Bosnian Serbs, could the history of Yugoslavia been possibly less bloody? It would also have a strong civil assistance role in terms of natural disasters and emergencies across the EU, particularly in assisting EU citizens stranded in parts of Europe as a result of weather problems such as the Icelandic Ash crisis, by having a strong heavy lift capability.

How would we fund it? Obviously, funding would have to come initially from national defence budgets, although it has to be stressed that it could be possible for member states to effectively outsource some military commitments as a result. As part of its founding charter, the EURDF would have to have a right to purchase its equipment and material as it sees fit from across the EU, allowing it to make savings that national armies tied to national weapons procurement policies cannot. Could we see EU/NATO forces in Afghanistan being replaced, for example, by the EURDF? As defence cuts bite across Europe, it would not be that remarkable to see former soldiers in national armies enlist in the EURDF, knowing that such a thing is not a betrayal of their previous service to their countries, to whom they would remain loyal citizens.  And would member states be more willing to deploy an “at arm’s length” force into tougher fighting conditions then they are willing to do so with their own troops at present, one of the complaints about some EU forces currently deployed? 

Let us be clear what we are talking about here: It is about turning the public’s “those guys over there in the EU” into an admittedly macabre strength. Irish and Swedish and Polish citizens will not take as quickly to the streets, if at all, when men and women wearing EU cap badges die in combat in Helmand or Somalia, even though those brave men and women will be someone’s son or daughter. There is a form of mercenary force to this whole proposition, that is true. But it does address the answer as to how we sometimes do what every nation has to do, and also answers the question: Who will fight for Europe and its common interest? The EURDF will.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *