Britain and France Should Not Give Up on EU Defense Cooperation

October 24, 2011

The United Kingdom and France have spent the last 60 years encouraging their European neighbors to become more active players in defense. During the Cold War, there was a perception in London and Paris— as well as Washington—that NATO allies were not contributing sufficiently to transatlantic security. This belief became more prominent with the collapse of the Soviet Union, as most European governments cut their defense spending and many chose not to equip their armed forces for potential post-Cold War conflicts.

In the late 1990s, Britain and France turned to the European Union in the hope that it could help strengthen European military commitments. Although France had long been a supporter of independent European defense efforts, until 1998 the United Kingdom had been keen to maintain all efforts to improve European armed forces within NATO—mostly out of concern that autonomous European military cooperation might undermine the U.S. commitment to Europe. But the Balkan wars made the UK realize that—in the post-Cold War world—the United States might not always be prepared to stabilize Europe’s neighborhood. In addition, American policymakers were telling their British partners in private that unless Europeans became more active in defense, NATO was not going to last. So, in the hope that the EU might help galvanize the political will for reform, the UK agreed to launch the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP).

Over the following years, although Britain and France did not agree on all aspects of EU defense cooperation, they supported a variety of initiatives designed to develop a global strategic culture amongst their European allies, improve their military capabilities and increase the number of European troops deployed abroad. In 1999, London and Paris worked closely with their partners to set up what was known as the ‘Helsinki Headline Goal’, which aimed to give the EU the ability to deploy up to 60,000 troops and sustain them for a year by 2003. In 2004, Britain and France played a central role in creating the European Defense Agency (EDA), which was designed to increase the level of cooperation between armed forces and national defense industries in Europe. Both countries supported the drafting of the 2003 European Security Strategy and its 2008 update, which set out global security ambitions for the EU. And the UK convinced its neighbors to set up rapidly deployable combat units of 1,500 troops known as EU “battlegroups.”

In the run up to the Lisbon treaty, London and Paris also supported the concept of permanent structured cooperation (PESCO). This innovation, which has been introduced by the treaty but remains to be implemented, is designed to allow a core group of EU members to deepen their military cooperation. To qualify for membership of the core group, countries would have to meet certain criteria which demonstrated their commitment to defense. Prior to the new treaty, Britain and France had hoped that—as had been the case with the Eurozone—the pull of a core group would drive EU member-states to meet the various criteria, thereby strengthening European military capabilities.

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