NEW EUROPEAN MILITARY HQ – A RIVAL TO NATO?




ROBERT HARNEIS-TDO-The European Union has agreed to set up a new military HQ, creating what looks like an embryo EU-only alternative to NATO. The major EU military powers, France, Germany and Italy are reacting to the consequences of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

However, they are doing so cautiously. Strictly the new HQ will only be in charge of the three existing EU missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali and Somalia. Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign relations chief, was keen to point out at a foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday that the HQ was ‘not a European army - I know there is this label going around - but it’s a more effective way of handling our military work’. She also said that she took pride in the decision being unanimous.

The HQ will be called a Military Planning and Conduct Capability facility and will be housed in an EU building on Avenue Cortenbergh in Brussels which already hosts EU military experts, the EU Military Staff. It will have about 30 personnel, most of whom will be pulled in from other EU departments, and will be led by a Finnish lieutenant-general, Esa Pulkkinen, who also heads the military experts’ bureau. The HQ is to start work in April.

Until recently the EU has struggled to set up independent military command structures. The British, acting in their own perceived interests, and as a Trojan horse for the United States, have always been the bulwark against any attempt to set up a military organization to rival or replace NATO. They have been supported in this by the newer Eastern European nations who identify with the United States and are afraid of a revived and possibly revanchist Russia - in the case of Poland and the Baltic states, to an almost hysterical degree. They prefer US protection today as against theoretical EU protection tomorrow.

A notable example of British obstruction was the years of delay in the implementation of the EU global positioning system Galileo originally conceived in 1999. When it was finally launched, the British government made sure it was limited to civilian use only. Without an in-house satellite navigation system, no modern army can be completely independent. It is vital for missiles guidance systems. The EU was totally reliant on the US GPS system until Galileo came into operation in 2016. The US allow unlimited use of GPS but reserve the right to switch it off as they did selectively with India during the Kargil war in 1999.

The election of Donald Trump, who has demanded that all NATO states spend the full 2 % on defense they are committed to and has talked of NATO as obsolete, has also stimulated a change of attitude. Previously EU members of NATO let the US find 75 % of NATO's costs and as a result felt obliged to accept US foreign policy leadership.

Didier Reynders, the Belgian foreign minister, called the new HQ “a first step”, adding that when it comes to “a European army, maybe later”. Michael Ayrault, the French foreign minister, said: "It's necessary that we make progress [on defense] in a world of uncertainties". He added that defense cooperation was "important" for Franco-German relations as well as for European security and that it showed that Europe was "advancing ... despite Brexit and despite the US elections", referring to US president Donald Trump's anti-EU comments.

German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen, said: “We took a very important step toward a European security and defense union, because we have become very concrete”. She added that non-EU states, including post-Brexit UK, could “join in selectively with certain [military] projects or missions … The Norwegians have great interest in this, the British have great interest in this,” she said.

By contrast, the British defense minister, Michael Fallon, said the UK will ‘continue to cooperate with our European partners on defense and security’. He noted that UK had a large component in Sophia and that it was sending troops to Estonia, Poland, and Romania as part of a NATO mission to ‘deter Russian aggression’. Significantly, he added that ‘sensible’ EU countries, such as the Nordic states and the Netherlands, shared Britain's concerns that an EU army could undermine NATO. He downplayed the new ‘Military Planning and Conduct Capability’ center, saying: ‘There will be no new [military] headquarters, no new general officer. The current director of the EU military staff will be director of the military planning and conduct capability’

However, if the post Brexit European powers are contemplating replacing NATO with an EU based military organization, as General de Gaulle used to say, they would not have acted differently. Whether Britain likes it or not a united EU defense organization has clearly come a step closer.