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ESDP – now or never?

Article by Dick Leonard

October 10, 2008

It is ten years since the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) was launched, at an Anglo-French ‘summit’ at St. Malo, and there is now precious little to be shown for it. The French presidency of the EU is acutely aware of the failure of the policy, and is actively preparing a new European Security Strategy which will be presented for adoption at the December meeting of the European Council.

The full extent by which the ESDP has fallen short of expectations, and what needs to be done to make it effective, is set out in a coruscating new pamphlet by Nick Witney, who, until last year was the Chief Executive of the European Defence Agency.

Entitled ‘Re-energising Europe’s Security and Defence Policy’, it is published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (

It was not through lack of good intentions that the policy has failed, Witney makes clear. In 2003, all of Europe’s leaders signed up to an ambitious programme, of which the centre-piece was a ‘rapid reaction force’, 60,000-strong, which would be available at short notice for both peace-keeping and peace-making missions in trouble spots across the globe.

Nothing further has been heard of this projected force, except that – since January 2007 – two ‘Battlegroups’, each of around 1,500 troops, have been available at ten days’ notice. Had the rapid reaction force materialised it is highly likely that a number of conflicts could have been avoided or terminated more quickly,

On the Georgian-Russian border, for example, when in 2005 the Russians terminated a 150-person OSCE Border Monitoring Mission, the Georgians invited the EU to replace it. All the EU could manage was to send three persons (later extended to 12) to help Georgia reform its border management system.

Financially, the EU could easily have afforded to provide itself with an effective peace-enforcing capacity. The 27 member states are collectively responsible for almost a quarter of world defence spending. The trouble is, Witney emphasizes, that “massive sums” are spent on “irrelevance”.

Among many examples which he gives, the French and British so-called ‘independent’ nuclear deterrents are not mentioned. These are of, at best, doubtful utility, but to duplicate (and even upgrade them, as the UK is proposing through its Trident programme) is ludicrously wasteful.

Nor should manpower be a problem. Currently there are almost 2 million military personnel in the EU, compared to less than 1.5 million in the US. Yet less than one-fifth of these are defined as ‘deployable’, and only one in 20 was actually deployed in military operations or peace-keeping activities in 2006.

Behind this mismatch between resources and application lie a variety of malign factors – including inflexibility, vested interests, and a deep-seated reluctance to adapt outdated national practices. There is also a large element of ‘free-riding’, with some of the wealthier states shouldering far less than their ‘fair share’ of the overall burden.

Witney includes a table setting out the percentages of GDP spent by each country on defence expenditure. Only five countries – Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Greece and the UK – exceed the 2 per cent target set for NATO members. Among those who come down well in the lower half of the table are Germany, Spain, Sweden, Austria and Ireland.

The result is that European nations are left with far too much of things which they no longer need in the post-Cold War period – including 10,000 tanks and 2,500 combat aircraft, and large numbers of uniformed personnel performing non-essential duties. Meanwhile, says Witney, “transport aircraft, communications, surveillance drones and helicopters (not to mention policemen and experts in civil administration) remain in chronically short supply.”

The Georgian tragedy should have acted as a wake-up call. Europe’s leaders must now act decisively to establish ESDP as a reality rather than an aspiration. At the December summit they need to hammer out a new strategy and then show the political will to ensure that it is implemented.

If this isn’t done now, when will it ever be? Mr. Witney has provided the European Union with a comprehensive check-list of what needs to be achieved. It should form part of the briefing material of each of the 27 national leaders.

Dick Leonard is the author of The Economist Guide to the European Union.

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