There’s an enormous elephant standing on the back of another elephant playing a trumpet loudly at the heart of the European defence debate, and nobody wants to admit that it’s there.
The truth is, nobody wants to die for Europe.
If Russia invades Estonia, or Poland, or Finland, there’ll be no shortage of young and not-so-young men and women in those countries who will rush to take up arms to defend their homelands and their families. The problem is that by that stage, it’s just too late. Deterrence has failed. Europe will be at war, and yes, at that stage, it is Europe. An armed incursion into any of those countries will have a huge economic impact on the rest of the European Union (and the Euro), and so defending them is not only honourable but selfishly vital.
Yet, up to that moment, it isn’t, and that’s the problem. We end up in a surreal situation where a Europe that is bigger, richer and spends more money on defence (Britain and France combined spend more on defence than Russia) is still cowed by Russia. Why? Because there is a Russian army. There’s no European army. Instead there are 28 national armies frittering away Europe’s defence spend into a very unimpressive bang for our buck.
Nor is there any reason to believe that a combined European army could come about as a result of the merging of existing European armies. For all sorts of reasons of history, national pride, etc, that isn’t going to happen. However, the problem still remains, and the chancelleries of Berlin, Paris and Warsaw know it. Europe has to have a defence capability that it is willing to deploy into harm’s way, and effectively a force of men and women who are emotionally separate from national identities.
To put it another way: consider two imaginary headlines in a future Irish newspaper:
“200 Irish soldiers die in fighting on Estonian border.”
“200 European Defence Force soldiers die in fighting on Estonian border.”
The first headline will cause outrage in Ireland, with screams about neutrality and why are we fighting in a country so far away, etc. The second will be met with a shrug of shoulders, even if some of those soldiers are Irish.
Why? Because if the European Defence Force was a voluntary organisation that Irishmen and women just happened to join (there’d be no shortage of volunteers) that would be seen as sad if they died, but not on the same level as Irish army soldiers being ordered into battle. It would almost be seen as a business arrangement. A de facto European Foreign Legion.
That’s the key.
The EU could allocate part of the defence budget of each member state to tender a separate private military contractor operated force for deployment on EU sanctioned operations. The member states could lease to the contractors equipment not usually available to private sector operatives (e.g. fighter aircraft) and the contractor could be bound by certain conditions in terms of human rights, sourcing supplies and employees from contributing EU member state suppliers. The force could also be required to have a rapid reaction disaster relief capacity for use both within and outside the EU.
The benefit is that the EU a) gets a military capacity, and b) recognises that there is sometimes a European interest which needs to be physically defended by a European asset. Such a force could also be used to replace EU national forces in places like Afghanistan.
Is it a fanciful proposition? Possibly. It’s a very radical idea to tender out elements of defence. But it does recognise a reality that Europe is an entity with common interests that need to be defended, yet there does not exist, at national defence level, a psychological buy-in to that. The US is leading the way, with mixed results, in private sector involvement with combat capacity in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is where we are today, and we shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.