The debate on Irish participation in the proposed EU battlegroups should be based on realism rather than wish-fulfilment, writes Andy Storey.
The Minister for Defence, Willie O'Dea, has said that Ireland cannot currently commit troops to the EU's so-called "battlegroups" - 1,500- strong military forces intended for rapid deployment outside the borders of the EU.
According to Mr O'Dea, this is largely because Irish soldiers may only serve abroad under a UN mandate and the "battlegroups" might be deployed before such a mandate could be obtained.
Many commentators have called for the relaxation of this restriction, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs has intimated that the law may be changed to allow for Irish participation.
Two points are at risk of being lost sight of here. First, Ireland is already participating extensively in EU military plans and actions. Second, the idea of placing or maintaining restrictions on Irish participation should be the subject of legitimate debate, not dismissed as an anachronistic barrier to Ireland's playing its proper role in the world.
Even before the battlegroups were mooted, the EU had already taken over military operations in Macedonia and Bosnia and had initiated (in 2003) a military intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Irish troops served with the EU in Bosnia (under a UN mandate in this case) and helped in the planning of the DRC mission (also UN-mandated).
As Dr Tom Clonan points out (Irish Times, January 15th), five senior Irish Army officers already work at the EU's military headquarters. Many people see this as a good thing while others are opposed to it, but most are probably unaware that it is even happening.
This European military project will be advanced if the new EU constitution is adopted. Specifically, the constitution requests member-states to "make civilian and military capabilities available to the Union for the implementation of the common security and defence policy . . . [ and] undertake progressively to improve their military capabilities".
To this end, the constitution establishes a European armaments, research and military capabilities agency, charged with harmonising military requirements and procurement, and co-ordinating military research.
Thus, regardless of whether Ireland does or does not contribute troops to the new battlegroups, we are already heavily involved in the EU's development as a military power, and will become even more involved if the constitution comes into force.
The constitution also extends the range of tasks the EU's military wings may engage in. Previously, these were set out as "humanitarian and rescue tasks, peacekeeping tasks and tasks of combat forces in crisis management, including peacemaking".
This could obviously cover classic UN-style peacekeeping or humanitarian missions, but it could cover much else besides: for example, the 1999 NATO bombing campaign vis-a-vis Kosovo was described as a humanitarian intervention, a description which even its supporters might find somewhat inadequate.
Now that agenda of tasks is to be expanded still further. Under the new constitution, the EU may undertake all the afore-mentioned tasks and others, and "all these tasks may contribute to the fight against terrorism, including by supporting third countries in combating terrorism in their territories".
What does this last sentence mean? Could it cover the dispatch of European military advisers to dictators suppressing rebel movements? Perhaps this is an alarmist scenario, but the "blank-cheque" nature of the mandate for EU military action (and the vague generalities of EU policy documents) means that we have little or no idea of what EU, including Irish, troops are actually likely to get up to.
Two sets of questions flow from this analysis.
First, do we want the EU to assume increasing military functions and, if so, what do we want these military functions to consist of? Second, what, if any, role should Ireland play within a more militarised EU, and should there be restrictions on Irish participation?
At present, the requirement for a UN mandate constitutes one such restriction - an excessive one as far as some are concerned, while others would argue for even stronger limits on Irish involvement.
The upcoming debate in Ireland about the EU constitution provides a forum - by no means an ideal one, given the multitude of other issues the constitution covers - for some debate along these lines. It would be helpful if participants in that debate could refrain from three misleading arguments that have plagued discussion of these matters for many years.
The first is that the EU can be automatically assumed to be a force for good in the world and that any enhancement of EU powers will therefore advance the causes of peace and development.
We might all wish this to be the case, but we are dealing with power politics - witness, for example, increased European arms sales to China - so it seems unwise to simply assume it.
As Andrew Cottey (Irish Times, January 24th) points out, European governments, not just that of the US, have records of supporting "unsavoury allies".
This may not be an argument against Irish participation in the EU military project as it could be argued that Ireland might play a restraining role vis-a-vis such practices. But it is not "anti-European" to ask, at a minimum, that the debate be based on realism rather than wish-fulfilment.
The second misleading argument, popular amongst successive Irish governments, is that nothing of any substance is happening and that Ireland's traditional position (including commitment to neutrality) is unaffected.
Even if this were true in some narrow, technical sense, it dangerously elides the fact that significant changes are being made to the military competences and practices of the EU and of Ireland.
The third argument, popular amongst some campaign groups, is that Ireland is joining up to an alliance for the territorial defence of Europe.
This is also not the case, at least not at present. Rather, the point is that Ireland is joining up to an alliance for military action outside the territory of the EU.
Regardless of one's view of these developments, a proper debate about them is surely vital and long overdue. Dr Clonan raises the possibility that "Irish men and women will serve as foot-soldiers in EU military operations . . . [ and] become involved in whatever military adventures - or misadventures - the EU sees fit to pursue".
In advance of something as important as that happening, an open and informed discussion would surely be useful for all concerned.
Andy Storey is a lecturer in development studies at University College Dublin. email@example.com