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20th Jul 2018

EU crafts defence plan in Trump's shadow

  • EU battlegroups could form the core of the new "multifunctional civilian and military capabilities" (Photo: Public Affairs Office)

A jumbo-sized meeting of 56 EU foreign and defence ministers endorsed a plan to create a mini military HQ and to have joint rapid-reaction forces on Monday (14 November).

The EU foreign service will create the HQ, called “a permanent operational planning and conduct capability”, which will command “non-executive military missions”, such as training the Libyan or Iraqi military, but not combat.

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They also agreed that the EU needed its own joint forces that could be sent, if needed, to “situations of high security risk in the regions surrounding the EU”, for instance, in Africa, but said those types of operations would be commanded out of national HQs.

They said that battlegroups - battalion-sized forces made by small coalitions of member states - could form the core of the new “multifunctional civilian and military capabilities”.

EU battlegroups have existed for 10 years, but have never seen action, in part, because participating states never wanted to foot the bill.

Monday’s plan said battlegroups should be funded by the EU budget and that there should be other financial incentives, such as relaxed EU budget limits, for member states that invest more in defence.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defence minister, called Monday's accord “a step toward [EU] strategic autonomy”.

“I was always for an operational Europe of defence, not a declaratory one, we are now an operational Europe of defence,” he said.

Paolo Gentiloni, Italy’s foreign minister, said the mini HQ in the EU foreign service was “not yet a European general staff” but “that was the premise” of the project in terms of future development.

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said “there was a growing awareness among the European public … that security is also a matter for the EU”.

She said the EU military capabilities would not amount to an “EU army” that could defend Europe from external aggression the same way as Nato.

“It’s not about doing European Union territorial defence, Nato is there for that, there are allies and others who have their own capacities, for that”, she said.

“It’s more than just ‘blah, blah, blah’,” an EU diplomat said. “There’s a new level of political ambition and a document with concrete tasks and a detailed timetable for implementation”, he said.

The plans are to be taken forward over the course of the next year, with a progress review scheduled for June.

Trump shadow

The EU talks took place in the shadow of last week’s US election, in which the winner, Donald Trump, has said that he would not defend Nato allies who did not spend more on defence and indicated he might recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Mogherini said that the EU military rethink pre-dated the US vote and began after last year’s Paris terrorist attacks.

“We started this process well before the US elections and we would have discussed this document no matter what the result would have been,” she said.

She said it was too early to know what Trump would do, but added “there’s a need for Europeans to take care of themselves” in security terms.

French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said “the uncertain nature of the world was already there, it didn’t start with the election of Mr Trump”.

He said Trump’s campaign speeches had indicated that the US could turn away from Europe, however.

“There’s a risk of [US] isolationism … if there’s a return to isolationism, that wouldn’t be a good thing, not for the US and not for the world”, he said.

German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen told press she sympathised with Trump’s call for European nations to increase military budgets.

The UK, which had previously threatened to block the EU defence plan on grounds that it would compete with Nato, did not wield its veto, but continued to criticise the project.

“Instead of planning expensive new HQs or dreaming of a European army, what Europe needs to do now is spend more on its own defence," said British defence minister Michael Fallon, referring to the military budgets of Nato allies.

"That’s the best possible approach to the Trump presidency," he said.

He said the EU HQ “simply duplicates Nato” and that some “quite wealthy” EU states were refusing to “step up” on spending.

Polish warnings

Poland, which shares UK concerns on Nato, welcomed the EU plan, but issued warnings.

Its foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski said there “cannot be some kind of [EU] rivalry with Nato, with the US”.

He said EU military structures should not just focus on Africa and the Middle East, but should have a “360-degree” approach to threats, including from Russia.

He also said EU forces should not, in practice, be commanded by just France and Germany, and that plans to reform EU defence procurement should not lead to takeovers of Eastern European arms firms by their Western competitors.

“All countries [should] take part in controlling them [EU forces]. There cannot be quartets or quintets, or other restricted formats, in those structures, there must be a democratic process,” he said.

Trump’s victory has been greeted by thinly disguised horror in many European capitals.

The UK, Poland, and other states, such as Hungary, welcomed the development on Monday, however.

British foreign minister Boris Johnson said there was “a lot to be positive about” and that Trump was a “deal-maker”. “I think that could be a good thing for Britain, but it can also a good thing for Europe”, he said.

Waszczykowski said he still expected the US to send soldiers to Poland as part of a Nato Russia-deterrent force in the “next few weeks”.

He said Trump had made bilateral pledges on Polish security in meetings with Polish expat groups in the US during his campaign.

“I have an easy mind. I think we’ll have good contacts with the new administration,” he said

Polish defence minister Antoni Macierewicz said Trump also promised to help him with his inquiries into the Smolensk air disaster in 2010, in which a former Polish president perished en route to Russia and which Macierewicz believes was a Russian plot.

Liberal elites

Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto attacked what he called “the political hysteria sweeping through the European political elite” about Trump’s victory.

“We think the election of Donald Trump is a good thing,” he said, speaking for Hungary's right-wing and populist government.

He added that EU and US liberal elites must respect the will of the people.

“It is an odd interpretation of liberal democracy that as long as the citizens of a country make decisions that certain elites like, then that democracy is considered to be fine and worthy to follow, but as soon as the decisions are of a different nature, we immediately start crisis talks and criticism,” he said.

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