No sense opting out of European defence role


OPINION:THE TAOISEACH and Minister for the Environment are due to meet, possibly some day this week, for a chat about the European Defence Agency (EDA). Good. I hope there’s a degree of straight talking – maybe Brian Cowen could bring along Minister for Defence Willie O’Dea who is on the button when it comes to staying in the EDA.

I hope that after his chat, John Gormley approaches this subject a bit more like a Minister in a Government fully engaged and committed to the European project and less like the leader of a junior coalition partner, many of whose members seem more comfortable being outside the tent peeing in, as Lyndon Johnson once said – more or less.

But the omens aren’t good. Last week, Gormley restated his party’s long-standing antipathy towards the EDA by reaffirming its policy, which is that Ireland should withdraw from the agency. Two days later, it emerged that he and Cowen were going to have that chat but would otherwise stay mum, in deference, presumably, to the Greens’ weekend conference in Wexford.

In the event, the EDA didn’t figure in White’s Hotel. Up to this, the Greens routinely expressed dislike of the EDA and the agency has played a significant role, according to some in the party, in stymieing attempts to get full party support for Lisbon. But the EDA isn’t the real problem: more accurately put, a significant segment of the Greens simply dislike all things military – full stop. The Lisbon Treaty commits EU member states to improving their military capability “and that is not acceptable to the Green Party”, says Gormley.

Why not? Improving a military capability is precisely what any government in charge of an army should do. Not to improve capability would lead, over time, to a military that could not function effectively and, worse, could not even protect its own personnel. In other words, a military that was simply useless. Perhaps that is what those who are opposed to the EDA actually want. But it is not what the Government, or the rest of us, should want.

The agency was established in July 2004 by EU heads of government. Its aim is to “support the member states and the [European] Council in their effort to improve European defence capabilities in the field of crisis management and to sustain the European Security and Defence Policy as it stands now and develops in the future”.

It has 26 members, including Ireland, and other neutral states such as Sweden, Austria and Finland. The main aims of the agency are to promote research and development, so that member state armies, such as our own Defence Forces, participating in EU-sponsored humanitarian and crisis management operations, can do so effectively. That means interoperability, compatibility of equipment, and a high degree of co-operation between European defence forces. A co-ordinated, combined approach also means maximising available talent and lowering costs.

Europe’s arms industry is actually shrinking and the role the EU is seeking to fashion for itself militarily is a complete break from the role, historically, of some European armies. So how do you move the arms industry towards producing helicopters, armoured vehicles, transport aircraft, drones and other equipment which peace missions desperately need? The EDA can be the vehicle for doing just that, but only if countries such as ours are at the table arguing for that kind of shift in emphasis. The Danes opted out and regret it. You only have influence if you participate.

Assuming European Security and Defence Policy continues to develop as it has been (and Ireland, by participating, has a veto), our Defence Forces will be involved in many more humanitarian and peacekeeping missions such as those in Chad and Kosovo, both of which have the imprimatur of the EU and the UN. It makes sense, therefore, for our military equipment – guns, transport and communications equipment – to be compatible with those used by other participating armies.

This is what the EDA is about. If we leave it, if we opt out of the common security and defence aspects of Lisbon, we are going to have to ask ourselves why we have an Army at all. In such circumstances our Defence Forces would effectively have nothing to do.