Closer military co-operation required if Europe is to remain a force in the world

Opinion: Terrorism, cyber threats and piracy cannot be countered without modern technology

Irish troops on patrol with Kfor, the peace enforcing mission in Kosovo. Photograph: Peter Murtagh

Irish troops on patrol with Kfor, the peace enforcing mission in Kosovo. Photograph: Peter Murtagh


Off the coast of Somalia, men and women from across Europe are proving the old adage that no news can be good news. Stories of piracy used to make front pages around the world. Today they don’t. That is because attacks over the past year have dropped by 95 per cent.

This is no accident. National frigates are working together under the EU’s Operation Atalanta to protect the shipping lanes needed for so much of Europe’s trade with the rest of the world, and for vital food aid to Somalia. We are also tackling the underlying problems, not just the symptoms. The EU is training the Somalian army, supporting the rebuilding of its shattered institutions and providing development aid to lay the foundations for long-term prosperity.

Somalia provides an example of a wider truth. An effective and coherent security and defence policy is a necessity and not a luxury for Europe. Possessing the capacities for crisis prevention and peacekeeping are vital if we are to build a more peaceful world order.

Of course, Nato has been the linchpin of Europe’s security for 60 years. But times are changing. Earlier this year the last American battle tank left our continent. It is necessary, as well as right, for Europe to do more. That is why, since 2003, the European Union has successfully kept peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina, trained policemen in the Palestinian region and Afghanistan, as well as fighting piracy in the Indian Ocean.

We must now go further. If Europe is to remain a global player in the 21st century, Europeans will need to co-operate even more closely. The rationale for a stronger European defence policy is threefold: political, ensuring that the EU can live up to its global ambitions; operational, giving Europe the capacity to act on the ground; and economic, securing jobs and driving innovation in times of austerity.

Even if Europe has been at peace since the second World War, war and conflict are never far away. Whether it is the civil war in Syria or cyber attacks targeting our airports or energy grids, we face clear threats. Poverty and social and ethnic tensions are important drivers of conflict.

Diplomacy and dialogue
This is why we need a comprehensive approach to foreign policy, employing a broad spectrum of tools the EU has at its disposal. It combines our civilian and military missions with diplomacy and dialogue as well as development policy to address the symptoms and causes of conflict, as in Somalia.

Terrorism, cyber threats and piracy cannot be countered without modern technology and highly professional and well-equipped forces. Closer co-operation on defence will ensure Europe can act rapidly. When European fighter jets flew over Libya in 2011, US airtankers had to refuel them in 80 per cent of cases. We know which capabilities Europe lacks and we need to invest to develop them.

If European armies are equipped with modern airtankers and cyber defence capabilities, it will make them more reliable Nato partners too. What the EU calls “pooling and sharing” and what Nato calls “smart defence” are complementary and mutually reinforcing.

Defence markets are still too fragmented and decisions are still taken in 28 national contexts. As a result, new capabilities are purchased on a purely national basis, often giving preference to national industries, and often resulting in duplication in some areas and a lack of capacity in others. By successfully “pooling and sharing”, EU countries could better focus the €200 billion they spend every year on defence.

In times of austerity, it would be unreasonable to expect bigger defence budgets. Instead, we need pragmatic solutions: more co-operation between our governments by pooling, sharing and specialising; more convergence of military planning among member states and between EU and Nato; and consolidation of European defence industries.

Co-operating on defence – a field that lies at the very core of national sovereignty – requires trust; between governments and from our citizens. This is why we need to be clear that it is essential to safeguard jobs and increase economic prosperity.

Speedier reaction
One immediate challenge is to enable our forces to react faster to a crisis. Closer co-operation on defence can achieve just that. Research conducted by the European Defence Agency and the European Commission shows it could also save up to €130 million per year. European defence companies like EADS or BAE employ 400,000 people, and twice as many are working throughout the whole value chain, including in countless small and medium-sized enterprises.

Europe has come a long way from being a consumer of security to becoming a provider of security. The meeting of EU leaders in Brussels this week sends a signal that defence is top of the agenda in Europe. Three topics will be at the centre of our discussions: first, the priorities for future development of capabilities; second, building a competitive and innovative defence industry; and third, the preparation and availability of our forces.

The new emphasis on defence does not mean that the EU has abandoned its identity as a peace project in favour of more bellicose ambitions. On the contrary: Europe is aware that to remain true to its nature as a peace project, it needs the capabilities to protect and uphold its values in its neighbourhood and beyond.

Catherine Ashton is high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, and vice-president of the European Commission

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