Yesterday, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, slammed Catherine Ashton’s proposal for a European Union Permanent Joint Headquarters to command military missions undertaken through the Common Security and Defence Policy. At the moment, five Member States – Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Greece – offer their own permanent joint headquarters should the European Union need one; Operation Atalanta, the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden, has been commanded from Britain’s headquarters at Northwood, for example.
All fine and good – as far as it goes. It cannot be denied that the European Union has access to some sophisticated facilities, especially those provided by London and Paris. The trouble with the current situation is that, as soon as an operation is completed, the expertise and experience gained during that operation is either lost wholly or partly as the officers commanding it go their separate ways. A genuinely European military headquarters would stop that loss and funnel it back into the construction of a European strategic culture, creating a virtuous circle of military-civilian doctrinal innovation.
William Hague claims a European permanent joint headquarters would duplicate the structures of the Atlantic Alliance, and that Member States should instead invest their resources into their military capabilities. On the that issue, he is right: a European Union Permanent Joint Headquarters would create a new military institution. But the point is: so what? The Atlantic Alliance will not last forever, particularly as the United States evolves to take heed of China’s rise in East Asia. As the Atlantic Alliance fades with accelerating gusto, Europeans will need the means and wherewithal to undertake military operations of their own – at a high intensity – through genuinely European structures.
And this is the key point, which the British, in particular, need to understand: while the British foreign secretary is also right that most European Union Member States need to spend more on their military capabilities – by cutting down on excessive personnel and their terrestrial defence forces, and investing more in the means to ‘project power’ overseas – this will not come about of its own accord. Most Member States are just too small to do this themselves, or lack the size needed to sustain a British-French style strategic worldview. It will only come through the creation of institutions at the European level with the authority to take regular ‘stock checks’ of current military assets, highlight gaps and shortfalls, and provide the leadership necessary to press the Member States into action. Until London accepts that, European military power will continue to decline – to the benefit of no-one.