Ignoring military dimension of EU yields vital ground to No side

Fri, May 9, 2008, 01:00

Lisbon is not about militarising the EU but the time will come when we in Ireland should have a long debate about what role we are willing to play in defending Europe, writes Col Dorcha Lee

THERE HAS always been a reluctance, in certain quarters, to encourage debate on military implications of our membership of the European Union. The first reaction is often to argue that there are no military implications at all or, if they arise, that military aspects are exclusively political.

As each new EU treaty is put to a referendum, military issues are often quietly parked to one side, or wrapped away in a peacekeeping cocoon. The view often expressed is that any discussion on military-related implications, even EU peacekeeping, will cause alarm and increase a No vote.

I do not subscribe to this point of view.

In fact, in the long term, the lack of discussion on military implications means the public has little understanding of this area.

As a result, successive No campaigns have been able to exploit this information vacuum. Playing on fears of Ireland being dragged into future wars as a result of commitments we make to the EU has been a constant theme for anti-referendum campaigns. Lisbon is no different, with No campaigners stating that this treaty will affect Irish neutrality and claiming it contains a commitment to mutual defence.

But Lisbon reiterates a commitment already agreed, in previous treaties, to a "common defence policy, which may in time lead to a common defence". The distinction between these two terms needs to be understood. For one thing, the evolution of a common defence policy, in itself, does not affect our national security and defence policy of military neutrality, but participating in a future common defence of the EU clearly does.

Common defence means, in some shape or form, a binding commitment on member states to mutual defence. At first glance, Art 28 A,(para 7) of the Lisbon Treaty looks like a mutual defence clause where it states: "If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all means in their power in accordance with Art 51 of the United Nations Charter."

However, this is immediately followed by the key provision that this shall not prejudice the specific character of the security policy of certain member states. As the specific character of our national security and defence policy is that of "military neutrality", we are not bound by Lisbon to provide any aid or assistance that might prejudice this policy.

For example, if Russia were (hypothetically of course) to invade Latvia, Ireland would not be bound under the Lisbon Treaty to send any military assistance to the Latvians. In such a situation Latvia would, as a member of Nato, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, most likely be seeking military assistance by invoking the Washington Treaty. In Lisbon, common defence still remains, as it did in previous treaties, an aspiration for the future.

The EU's common security and defence policy, on the other hand, is further enhanced by Lisbon. The Lisbon Treaty continues to strengthen the EU's civilian and military capabilities in the humanitarian and peace support area. Lisbon also revises the scope of tasks to deal with crises, including joint disarmament operations, humanitarian and rescue tasks, tasks of combat forces in crisis management, including peace-making and post-conflict stabilisation.

Ireland remains free to opt in, or out, of such activities. Lisbon reiterates also the commitment to a unanimous decision by the EU Council for all decisions taken relating to common security and defence policy.

The EU Chad operation, essential to the success of the new UN operation in Darfur, is a good example of common security and defence in action. The Irish role in Chad underlines the Government's commitment to help out in a situation, which is both humanitarian and a threat to international peace. From a military point of view, it is a very significant mission, both logistically and operationally.

It is worth noting that the Defence Forces have come a long way in the past 10 to 15 years, through painful reorganisations and comprehensive re-equipment programmes, to be able to mount such an ambitious operation.

Institutions like the EU and Nato do not remain static. Both are evolving and responding to international crises. For both organisations, maintenance of international peace and stability is a top priority, as the 21st century shapes up to be the century of resource wars. EU member states who, like Ireland, are not members of Nato, can and do participate in Nato-led peace support operations without compromising their national security and defence policies. In this regard, participation in the Partnership for Peace programme has helped to achieve the necessary inter-operability between forces for effective peace support and humanitarian operations.

The French defence minister, Hervé Morin, in his recent article in The Irish Times (EU and Nato both needed in confronting threats to peace, Opinion and Analysis, March 26th), has called openly for building European defence and giving Europe the military means to define a foreign policy that carries weight in the world. He argues that both organisations are complementary and that solutions to European security will be found in using both organisations.

This is a valid point. However, he does not address the fact that there are EU member states who are not members of Nato and wish to maintain the specific character of their respective national security and defence policies.

Nor does he mention the Lisbon Treaty, which continues to support the non-Nato EU member states' right not to be bound into European defence.

The building of European defence is an issue that needs to be addressed, not in the context of Lisbon, but much later down the line when the recent expansion of the EU to 27 member states has been fully consolidated. It is not, at present, the top priority for the EU.

Here in Ireland, our sense of identity as Europeans, while growing among the young through travel and language-learning, is still not strong enough to make this commitment.

To put it starkly: our national defence has always been predicated on the fact that, when the chips are down, there will be a sufficient number of Irishmen and women who are prepared to fight, and die if necessary, for Ireland. We are a long, long way from feeling that patriotic about Europe.

Nevertheless, ultimately we will have to consider whether we are prepared to defend this union, which we have played a part in creating, and from which we have benefited so much. Lisbon is, however, about other issues.


Col Dorcha Lee is a former Defence Forces Provost Marshal and Director of Military Police. He was the first Irish military representative to the EU Military Committee when it met, on an interim basis, in 2000