EU defence ambitions stuck in no-man's land

AFP , Saturday 9 Jul 2011

Europe's grand defence project, already wounded by divisions over Libya, is stuck in a political no-man's land as Polish ambitions to revive it face indifference among allies

Poland had signalled for months that breathing new life into European Union defence would be a centrepiece of its six-month presidency of the 27-nation EU before it took over from Hungary on July 1.

But in the face of little enthusiasm among partners, most surprisingly France, usually the most ardent backer of EU defence, Warsaw agreed to scale down its programme for more modest goals, a European diplomat said.

Poland had hoped to seize on provisions in the nearly two-year-old Lisbon Treaty that foresee the deepening of military cooperation between EU states, with the ultimate goal of building a common security and defence policy.

Instead, EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on July 18 will merely review a report presented by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on possible ways for states to pool and share military capacities.

Cracks emerged when France and Britain spearheaded an air war in Libya to stop Muamer Gaddafi from crushing a rebellion, while Germany and Poland refused to join the battle despite their prominent roles within the EU and NATO.

While the 28-nation NATO alliance has led air strikes since March 31, the EU as an organisation has been left on the sidelines militarily. "What revival of European defence policy are you talking about," said a senior German official. "European defence does not exist today and this has little chance of evolving (in the short-term)."

A Polish official lamented that France and Britain chose the bilateral track when they struck a major military cooperation treaty between the two nations in November 2010.

"They chose to go it alone," the official said on condition of anonymity. "The signal is clear to us. If you do not have the two biggest military powers in the EU on your side, it is difficult to do European defence."

While Britain is seen as a roadblock to deeper EU military integration, France has until now been as its biggest champion.

"We are having a hard time following the French line on European defence at the moment," said a European military official who fears that "the passion is no longer there at the highest level in Paris."

Backers within the French military of greater cooperation with the United States, NATO's superpower, appear to be winning the argument over those who favour a European defence agenda.

For supporters of a trans-Atlantic approach, the official said, France's return to NATO's military structure in 2009 has paid off, whil the Libyan war shows that Europeans can take a leading role in a NATO operation.

The dwindling defence budgets among European nations, strongly criticised by former US defence secretary Robert Gates, has also fueled this euroscepticism.
Britain and France are among a handful of nations that meet NATO's desire for member states to spend two percent of their gross domestic product on defence.

"One can wonder if we won't just go back to promoting a European defence pillar within NATO," a senior alliance military official told AFP, referring to an idea that dates back to the 1980s and 1990s.

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