PARIS --- In 1954, the French Parliament vetoed an initiative to establish a European Defense Community, worried as it was that this could threaten NATO’s status as the key-stone of the defense of post-war Europe and allow German rearmament without sufficient checks.
But it needn’t have worried. Sixty years later, and despite all the changes that have so radically transformed the daily life of most Europeans, the idea of a common European defense still has not gained any traction, as can easily be inferred by reading the statement issued after the Dec. 18-19 meeting of the European Council.
Now, given the shambles that the European Commission has made of Europe’s border controls, of its single currency and of its banking system, to name just three examples, such lack of progress is probably a good thing. Given the caliber of people that national governments send to the Commission, it’s a good idea to keep them away from anything even remotely resembling a trigger.
It is worth remembering, in this respect, that Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy since 2009, is a left-wing militant and leader of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which advocated (and still does) unilateral disarmament and which in the early 1980s tried to block NATO plans to base cruise missiles in the UK after the Soviet Union deployed SS-20 nuclear missiles in East Germany.
Not that the defense credentials of her colleagues on the Commission are any more impressive; in fact, because many European students were allowed to skip military service, and because women weren’t then allowed to serve, defense expertise is singularly lacking in the EU executive.
Since its inception, NATO has been the primary organization for European defense, and even France, under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, eventually returned to the fold for all but nuclear issues. Joint maneuvering by the United States and their more Euro-sceptic allies ensured that most European defense initiatives -- even such talking shops as the Western European Union -- remained toothless.
But times have changed, as they will, and Europe already is a fading memory for the US.
Americans are now wholly preoccupied with their “pivot” to the Far East, with their determination to avoid wars of choice which, like Iraq and Afghanistan, have bled them dry and ruined their equipment, and with their “wars” on drugs, illegal immigration, and terrorism.
There is little time, little money and little inclination to protect European allies that still do not pay their own way, and who expect to continue riding on America’s security coat-tails for decades to come.
None of this is new, of course, and US disengagement from European defense has been increasingly obvious since the end of the Cold War.
The US deployed a huge force against Serbia and then Kosovo; a large naval and air contingent against Libya; it declined military action against Syria, contributed only some transport and tanker assets to support France in Mali, and so far a single aircraft to the most recent action to the Central African Republic.
It is in such a delicate and uncertain context that the European Union decided to make a grab for defense, the one area of European public life from which it is barred by treaty.
Given this context, the fact that last week’s summit was the first defense-related meeting of the European Council since 2008 was widely interpreted as being likely to, finally, produce concrete results.
The rumors were so persistent that British Prime Minister David Cameron, as clueless as usual on defense, felt obliged to state, on the eve of the meeting, that he would veto any attempt to create a European army or to launch weapon programs under the auspices of the European Union.
Against this background, and the UK’s heralded veto, the European Council boldly stepped into the fray and showed its determination to take over European defense: it firmly called for working groups, for appropriate meetings, for road maps, for “appropriate policy frameworks,” and even “preparatory action on CSDP,” something it’s been discussing for well over a decade.
And to show it can act not only decisively, but quickly as well, the final communique promises that “the European Council will assess concrete progress on all issues in June 2015 and provide further guidance.” The joint communique is here (10 PDF pages), and makes painful reading for any self-respecting European citizen.
Even a vague plan to lay the ground work for a medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to enter service around 2025 was defanged as demanded by the UK.
As a result, the UAV initiative is now limited to welcoming “the development of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) in the 2020-2025 timeframe [and] preparations for a programme of a next-generation European Medium Altitude Long Endurance RPAS.
And planned advances in the field of in-flight refueling, satellite communications and cyber-defense – so obviously necessary as to be uncontroversial – were reduced to vague statements using such complicated syntax as to make them incomprehensible, no doubt on purpose. (See § 11 of the final statement.)
Clearly, the first European defense council in five years produced exactly nothing, and there still is no long-term substance, nor indeed any vision, to the increasingly hollow concept of European defense.
Yet, under continuing pressure to reduce expenditure, Europe continues to disarm, either by cutting budgets and downsizing their militaries like France, Germany and the UK, or by dismantling their armed forces and selling off their weapons, like the Netherlands and Portugal, to name but two.
How long can Europe continue to hide behind the skirts of NATO and the US?