Despite the Brits, a modest defence summit success

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The headlines around last Thursday's European defence summit were dominated by the surreal shadow-play in which the UK prime minister indulges with British Europhobes on such occasions. They pretend to detect new European plots (to undermine NATO; to create a European army; to arm the EU Commission - nothing is too fantastical); he pretends to scotch them.

Never mind that the NATO Secretary General was moved to emphasise that 'I don't see any contradiction between strengthened defence in Europe and a stronger NATO', and that 'we are not talking about the EU possessing capabilities'.  Never mind either that the consequences of Britain's distaste for European cooperation were being pointed up at much the same time, as the UK's top general warned of the 'hollowing out' of its cash-strapped forces. The Europhobes were happy to have propagated a new EU scare, the prime minister to have struck the pose of heroic resistance.

Back in the real world, the summit was actually a modest success. With a five year gap since the last such event, most of the assembled national leaders were discussing European defence together for the first time -- an overdue development in itself. The plan to do it again in mid 2015 should help keep them engaged. And experience has shown that only strong impulse from the top can overcome the inertia and resistance within defence establishments, to make them deliver on the increased cooperation that their leaders -- almost all their leaders -- want.

A useful shortlist of joint projects was also agreed, targeted at the most conspicuous capability gaps revealed by the 2011 Libya campaign (air-tanking, drones, and communications), and cutting some of the more egregious waste and duplication in European defence, such as each nation's insistence on re-certifying for itself that a new aircraft is safe to fly. True, most of these subjects have been tackled before, with little success. But this time round some deadlines have been set; and the fact that it is national leaders to whom reports of progress will have to be made should help concentrate minds.

But no one should get carried away. The ideas developed for the summit were almost exclusively concerned with the 'infrastructure' of defence -- equipment, and the industrial base. Military cooperation proposals were conspicuously absent. And it is here that European defence is most damagingly falling short of its potential, and its declared ambition. A roster of rapid reaction forces -- the EU battle groups -- is on standby to deal with sudden crises, especially if the UN asks for help -- as it did over Mali at the start of the year, and over the Central African Republic in recent days. In both cases the EU sat on its hands, leaving it to the French to deploy on a national basis. (No surprise that, though it was a British force in the frame for the CAR, London made plain that it was going  nowhere.)

The reality is that a policy originally intended to enable Europeans to take effective military action without US help -- an objective all the more relevant since the US's recent decision to shift its strategic focus away from Europe to Asia -- has been quietly downgraded to training and advisory tasks.

Why? Partly because the UK, Europe's Achilles, has retreated to its tent to sulk. Partly because German pacifism has reasserted itself. Partly because even France, so long the animator of 'l'Europe de defense', seems to have decided that trying to get action out of Brussels is just not worth the effort. With the Big Three out of sorts, and the Brussels institutions congenitally uncomfortable with the concept of hard power, it has been left to some of the smaller member states -- Poland, Sweden -- to resist the prevalent drift towards demilitarisation and global irrelevance.

So perhaps the single most important result of the summit was the agreement on the need for Europe to step back, reflect on where the wider world is headed, and what the implications are for Europeans. The product of such a strategic re-think will give national leaders plenty to talk about when they return to defence in 18 months time.
 

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