EU lacks military muscle to enforce global peace
Jon Van Housen & Mariella Radaelli
Early in the 19th century, Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote that “war is the continuation of politics by other means”. While not throwing the possibility of war around too lightly, geopolitical strategists generally agree, noting that the logical final act of diplomacy in intractable situations is war, or at least the credible threat of punishing conflict.
Since WWII, remembrance and the very threat of war have preempted any worldwide conflict, perhaps best demonstrated by the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis when the US and Soviet Union edged towards the brink of a war. Knowing they both had the means to wreak global destruction, they backed away. Mutually Assured Destruction – appropriately abbreviated MAD – helped keep the peace.
Today a credible threat is also needed to wage peace. To exert influence and stop fighting, hard intervention is sometimes needed. But the capability to do that has to be proven on the ground to be taken seriously enough that even hardened men will listen and cooperate.
The European Union is becoming increasingly frustrated with its own impotence and inability to influence events on its own doorstep. A recent conference in Berlin on the ongoing Libyan crisis was hosted by Germany and the UN, not the EU. Major players included Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Germany, and the UAE, but not the combined EU, a reality that was painfully obvious to even its leaders.
Though the conference offered a chance to dispel the impression of an unprepared EU, even the bloc’s foreign minister admitted it could do little in its current state.
“There is no secret that on this question, we Europeans have been suffering from internal divisions and we have not been united enough in order to present a coherent position that gives us strength,” said Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. “I have said many times the EU needs more unity in order to be taken into consideration in problems like Libya.”
It took steady German Chancellor Angela Merkel to once again provide some European credibility. She tried to put light on it by saying the result was somewhat better than others in recent years.
“We have already experienced a time when Europeans did not speak with one voice,” Merkel told reporters. “But the fact that the participants – Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Turkey – have now also agreed to a cease-fire has made it much easier for Europeans to express themselves in one speech here. Or let me put it the other way around: Europe too has contributed to this success. That is why I have a much better feeling than I did a year or two ago.”
At almost the same time, recently elected EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was delivering a speech to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland that said the EU needs “credible military capabilities” to respond to crises. “The bloc has already set up the building blocks of a European defense union,” the former German defense minister said in her speech. “It is complementary to Nato and it is different,” she told the gathering of billionaires and political leaders. “There is a European way to foreign policy and foreign security policy where hard power is an important tool.”
Most would agree, but how to reach that goal is a big question when it requires placing men in harm’s way and expending a nation’s treasure. Naturally there are 27 opinions and agendas, as many as there are EU members. A shaky Libyan ceasefire and arms embargo negotiated at the Berlin Conference came as Borrell called upon the EU to consider sending troops to Libya.
“If there is a ceasefire in Libya, then the EU must be prepared to help implement and monitor this ceasefire, possibly with soldiers, for example as part of an EU mission,” Borrell told Der Spiegel newspaper. “Or take the arms embargo – we Europeans have been entrusted by the UN to enforce it. In reality, the arms embargo is ineffective. Nobody controls anything there.” Borrell has repeatedly argued for the EU to scrap the unanimity clause in its foreign policy treaty so the bloc can act more decisively to global challenges.
But any viable EU force will have to be developed virtually from scratch. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, it seemed European nations wanted to finally cash in on a “peace dividend”. The 1990s were a decade of major cuts in military capabilities even as a conflict in the Balkans grew out of control. The 2008 financial crisis further weakened military spending.
One initiative attempting to reverse the trend is something called the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) plan started in late 2017. With all EU members onboard except Denmark and Malta, it aims to improve capabilities through binding commitments in defense spending, harmonising defense systems, readiness of forces and European equipment programmes.
The EU has proven its mastery of peace through its many compassionate programmes, but unfortunately events show the peace still needs to be enforced. Europe now needs to step forward and provide some of the muscle needed.