Opinion: Britain Could Lead on European Defense

By Wolfgang Ischinger

The Thames River and Houses of Parliament in London Zoom
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The Thames River and Houses of Parliament in London

In the wake of the euro crisis and the NSA spying scandal, many have questioned Britain's future role in Europe. But the head of the Munich Security Conference argues in a book excerpt that London has a strong and indispensible role to play in European defense.

The euro zone crisis and the questions it has thrown up about Europe's future integration and institutional shape have understandably come to dominate the debate over Europe over the past few years. But the imperative to save and spend smarter may provide an incentive to reinvigorate the discussions about more cooperation in defense and security matters -- especially when it comes to the pooling and sharing of military assets. Moreover, we should talk about the crisis of confidence over the massive surveillance activities of British intelligence.

While large segments of British society have grown weary of Brussels and everything it is presumed to stand for, with politicians catering to and reinforcing this weariness, many Europeans are starting to wonder aloud whether the UK really is an indispensable part of Europe -- or whether it would not be better to part ways in an amicable fashion.

This is a dangerous dynamic, to say the least. Some of the criticism directed at London from the continent has been understandable. After all, while all hands have been on deck to save the euro, and with it European integration, some opinions voiced from Britain have not been constructive at all. At the same time, however, Europeans on the Continent have to recognize the very particular nature of public opinion in Britain, and they should recognize what Britain can bring to the table.

The biggest countries in the European Union have always had different ideas about the shape and the purpose of the EU. But until the crisis exposed the fundamental flaws in the construction of the EU and the euro zone, it was comparatively easy, albeit sometimes ugly, to bridge these differences. No longer. The debate about how much Europe we need, in terms of institutional cohesion and the transfer of sovereignty, in order to emerge from the crisis and to build a foundation for a functioning Europe of the future is also a debate about whether Britain will continue to be a part of a EU.

Zeroing in on Areas of Mutual Interest

We don't know how this will play out over the coming years. But there is a real risk of a British exit from the EU if no middle ground can be found. Under these circumstances, it is all the more important to zero in on issues where our mutual interest overwhelmingly calls for closer cooperation, not alienation. Foreign and defense policy is one of these areas.

At first, that might seem counterintuitive. After all, foreign and defense policy has been dominated by national policies and concerns, and has been characterized by a lack of joint European progress. Take defense procurement, for instance, where vested interests reign supreme, from the contractors to the armed forces and politicians.

It is true that European states have different strategic cultures and priorities, that they put different emphases on the importance of security policy and that they are reluctant to create dependencies on others in this field. Simply put, it is remarkable how little bang Europe is getting for the buck it pays on defense matters. Thus, common European foreign and defense policy looks to be even messier than European affairs in other policy areas.

And yet, it is not altogether unrealistic to expect much deeper and more meaningful defense cooperation in Europe in the foreseeable future. Those who merely consider concepts like "Smart Defense" and "Pooling and Sharing" -- old ideas somewhat repackaged -- underestimate the pressures bearing down on the European defense establishment.

Tightening the Screws

Three structural changes have given significant impetus for a concentrated shift from the idea of defense cooperation as a political vision to defense cooperation as a pragmatic necessity. First, the defense sector is feeling a tightening of financial screws. Second, at the same time, greater demands are being placed on the armed forces, which will only further increase as the United States continues to "rebalance toward the Pacific, putting even greater pressure on Europe to be able to operate effectively in its own neighborhood should a crisis occur. Finally, the unpredictability of the future security environment will require greater coordination and effectiveness from European forces.

In other words, given the financial constraints in all the European countries, combined with the greater demands on European defense, Europe's ability to act can only be guaranteed if there is a will to achieve much closer European cooperation, as no member state is able to maintain the full spectrum of capabilities on its own any more. The Franco-British defense and security treaties testify to this very basic observation, and are a remarkably positive example of what cooperation can achieve.

In the long run, closer defense cooperation within Europe will not only save money, increase trust and improve capabilities. Closer defense cooperation may well also aid in converging strategic cultures, making more cooperation likely, creating a sort of virtuous circle that will eventually contribute to a more cohesive European foreign policy.

Moreover, importantly, stronger common European efforts including Britain should be much easier today than in past decades, since strengthening European capabilities or NATO are no longer seemingly mutually exclusive courses of action. Nothing about improving EU capabilities means that our alliance with the US will be any less meaningful in the future. Quite the opposite: The US is making it clear how important a functional and united Europe is for them, too. To quote Vice President Joe Biden, from his speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2013: "(A) strong and capable Europe is profoundly in America's interest, and I might add, presumptuously, the world's interest."

Incremental Change

That being said, we should not expect any miracles, let alone steps toward a European army. This does remain a worthwhile long-term objective, but on such an exceptionally loaded and complicated issue, incremental change may be the best we can hope for. This change will be based on a pragmatic and project-based approach, consisting of elements of cooperation, prioritization, and specialization. At first, it will focus on the areas of education and training, logistics and maintenance, with more critical areas following. Should Europe ever move ahead decisively on defense matters, the impulse will have to come from the very top, with leaders taking truly game-changing decisions on the scope and depth of cooperation.

It goes almost without saying that any such attempts to pool and share (more) military assets in Europe would be unthinkable without the strong involvement of the United Kingdom. On the contrary, here Britain could be one of the motors, forcing, for instance, Germany to pay more attention to security policy. British-German bilateral defense cooperation, which is remarkably underdeveloped, would get a boost along the way.

If defense cooperation in Europe is hardly conceivable without an important British role, this is even more the case when it comes to foreign policy and a strategic global outlook in a more general sense. We are all aware that the relative importance and clout of European states in the world will continuously diminish over the coming years and decades.

We will either act largely together or be largely irrelevant -- dependent on the United States to safeguard a liberal international order. If Europe is to play the role of a major global player that is able to defend its interests and values in an increasingly complex and complicated multipolar international order, Britain will have to be an essential part of that.

Reigning In the Spooks

Also, Britain ought to be an essential part of the efforts to restore trust in both trans-Atlantic and intra-European affairs with respect to mutual spying. Much of the German outrage may have focused on the United States and the NSA's tapping of Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone. However, Germans also took note of the GHCQ's activities. Britain will have to play a convincing and constructive role in the debates about a European no-spy agreement. Clandestine services of EU states should have to respect the privacy of all EU citizens.

In terms of the larger defense policy questions, while there would be some advantages to having a smaller, more cohesive and more integrated Europe, a British exit from Europe would severely hamper the Continent's global outlook. Britain's experience in diplomacy and international affairs, including its seat in the UN Security Council, its able military, its championship of free trade, and its function as a bridge over the Atlantic are critical assets.

Without them, Europe in the future would likely take a more narrow, inward-looking, maybe even protectionist perspective, which would not be advisable. In the words of German journalist Jan Ross, the European Union without the UK would be a "Europe with a shrunk horizon."

However, Britain stands to lose even more than Europe should it opt for a course outside of Europe. Independence from Brussels may feel liberating for some time, but, in the medium and long run, it would severely harm Britain's prosperity. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, who was a war and foreign correspondent for various UK media organizations such as the BBC and the Telegraph between 1986 and 1991 and who has developed an intriguing and welcome habit of publicly speaking his mind to some key EU countries, put it this way in a speech at Blenheim Palace in September 2012:

"Your interests are in Europe. It's high time for your sentiments to follow. Your leaders need to make a more vocal case for your European interests. … You could, if only you wished, lead Europe's defense policy."

Indeed, Britain could. And, hopefully, not too far into the future, it will.

About Wolfgang Ischinger
  • DPA
    Wolfgang Ischinger, 66, is a German diplomat. Between 1998 and 2001, he served as a state secretary in Germany's Foreign Ministry. He then spent five years as the German ambassador to the United States, followed by three years as ambassador to the United Kingdom. He now serves as head of the Munich Security Conference.
This text has been excerpted from the new book "Common Destiny vs. Marriage of Convenience -- What do Britons and Germans want from Europe?" by the British-German KE7 foundation.

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1. Queens reign, horses (and spooks) can be reined in
throbshaw 02/02/2014
M. Hollande last week just about sealed the issue of Britain leaving the EU. Without massive reform the EU is doomed to become less and less competitive, and if such reforms are ruled out Britain will leave. I think the author has it backwards, in the short term leaving will be very costly to us, but in the medium and longer term we will be better off. The EU without our voice for free trade will become even more sclerotic. I reckon we will be the first to leave, but far from the last
2. optional
superstueystu 02/02/2014
I'm a 21 year old student in the UK. I spend a lot of time in Germany visiting friends and would like to spend some time working there some day. I am still very much on the fence about the EU, it needs to change and we need to start seeing more benefit for the richer states within it, right now it feels like money goes out and poor eastern European immigrants flood in to put it simply. Not too mention I find the amount of money and non-accountability of the EU Commission worrying. EU defence would be extremely challenging for a number of reasons. Firstly, the UK is extremely proud and patriotic on such matters, our victories in the Falklands and in both World Wars, I know Germany would rather it was forgotten but it is a major thing here and rightfully so. To let our military be changed and form into a pan EU force is not appealing to the average Brit who holds the British military in high regard. Weapons procurement would be a difficult thing to sort out, with such large indigenous weapons industries in the UK, France, Germany, Italy. Who makes the tanks, bombs, rifles, ships… Plus having 20+ nations all not fluent in one language is just one mistake away from a terrible friendly fire incident - it was bad enough between the UK and US. The way the average Brit feels about the EU is probably similar to what the average East German or Pole thought about the Soviet Union, you can't take our sovereign rights, have a ECHR that puts a foreign terrorist's rights above that of the indigenous native population, tell us we can do nothing to stop mass immigration of unskilled labour and then expect us not to simply say, where is my vote? We chose a common market before I was even born, I will fight and grow ever more resentful until I am given my vote, only then will I weigh up the pros and cons of remaining in the EU. ~A young concerned pro-European Brit.
3. European Defense Cooperation
jbindenagel 02/02/2014
Ambassador Ischinger’s comment about Europe will either act largely together or be largely irrelevant should move the UK and other member states to accept a more robust security role for Europe. As The President Gauck stated in his speech at the Munich Security Conference, Germany should “take more resolute steps to preserve and help shape the order based on the European Union, NATO and the United Nations.” The German president noted that Allies have debated for years about the direction the Alliance should take, and yet done nothing to stop the depletion of its financial resources. At the same time while not calling the alliance with the United States into question, Germany has observed symptoms of stress and uncertainty about the future. This American, when the United States is not prepared to keep providing more security, would welcome a deeper UK-German collaboration to strengthen the resolve of Europeans to provide more for European and global security.
4. Don't Hold Your Breath
sylvesterthecat 02/03/2014
Amazing! The EU has found a use for us at last! I don't know what to say. er yes I do..... Please remember at the first opportunity we will be gone so don't@ count on us! Should anyone consider that we as a country will accept the role of 'soldiers of the EU' forget it. An alliance where two or more sovereign countries band together for common advantage, is OK but to expect us to fight for the EU? , no. If the EU needs soldiers, hire some mercenaries.
5. God Forbid!
Inglenda2 02/03/2014
The majority of people in Britain and in Germany have never wanted wars, it was the governments who were to blame, but the people who suffered. Once again, we now have a government in Germany which is ready and willing to send soldiers to their death in foreign lands, although it was agreed in 1945, that German soldiers should never again put foot on to foreign soil. However, turning to Britain is no answer. From all European lands, Britain has the most aggressive history. No other country interferes so much in areas where it has no right to be. This has nothing to do with defence, it is war mongering !
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