Guardian
Bangs per buck

David Walker

Friday June 9, 2000


What do Eurosceptics, American Republicans and Nato general secretary George Robertson (speaking out yesterday in Brussels) have in common? They all believe in "Europe". Either it is a juggernaut bearing down on them or a thing with a mind of its own, attending, say, to collective defence. In fact national perspectives rule OK, especially when it comes to soldiers and the foreign policies they serve.

Defence and security show most clearly how fragile European aspirations can be. Despite the trappings - Javier Solana's appointment as high representative, the promise at last year's Helsinki summit to create a European intervention force - a common "identity" is painfully slow in being born.

The other day George W Bush's shadow national security adviser anticipated Robertson's speech to Nato defence ministers. Spending by European countries on defence had to rise, she said - Europe had to become more autonomous in security matters. (Neither spelled out "or else".) Backsliders will be driven - says Solana, Nato general secretary - by peer review: you show me yours and I will show you mine. "Member states would discuss collectively their contributions to the headline goal and debate how to make up any shortfalls."

That implies the existence of a common will not just to defend Europe (which Nato membership affirms) but to project force elsewhere.

Some countries believe it - the Dutch say arresting the decline in their defence spending shows their Europeanness. Elsewhere the European security picture cuts little ice with voters and politicians.

EU members signed up in Helsinki to a corps capable of speedy movement and intervention. By 2003 a force 180,000-strong, allowing 60,000 warriors to be mobilised at any one time, could deploy within 60 days; any given operation would be sustainable for at least a year. Rapid reaction units already exist in France, the UK and Germany. The problems surround the transformation of their defence posture to allow the Helsinki commitment to be met alongside Nato and other obligations.

The big European players have the men, as the chart shows. The problem is their quality, how they are armed, moved and supplied. The German Social Democrat - Green coalition pledged to cut defence. But defence minister Rudolf Scharping admitted to SPD members of the Bundestag that Germany's armed forces are not capable of serving Nato nor Europe in their present state. His solution is a big cut in manpower (though the Schröder government has just agreed women can take frontline roles), freeing up money for equipment. About 13% of German defence spending goes on weapons, compared with 27.5% in the United Kingdom and 24.4% in the US. German forces are, as a result, badly equipped. They have more soldiers - 60.1% of German defence spending goes on manpower compared with 39.2% in the UK. But many are conscripts who do not fight. (The last British conscript was recruited in 1960 and selective service was abolished in the US in 1973; France, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and Belgium have recently de cided to end compulsory service.)

On June 21 the German cabinet is due to cut the defence budget of DM45.3bn to 43.7bn by 2003. Because anything to do with the Bundeswehr evokes painful comparison with the Wehrmacht, the Schröder coalition took the precaution of appointing a commission headed by former president Richard von Weizsäcker to suggest cuts.

Scharping now has its plan, for a cut in strength from 463,000 to 320,000. Military conscription would be kept, but only for 30,000 draftees, selected by lottery. The army's own general- inspector recommends 399,000 and mini-conscription. Tampering with the balance of forces is not just a technical decision. Conscription has been seen as a way of ingratiating the army with the public. What would the ethos of a fully-professional force be? The official answer is carry out alliance tasks, especially in Europe. But the French interior minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement wants the German army to be both big and capable of serving autonomous German policy objectives - final proof that the country is now "reconciled in depth with its history". Privately, many Germans agree.

Cutting troop numbers ought to provide resources for the transport, communications and weaponry that Germany lacks and which may be supplied by new pan-European procurement schemes to which Tony Blair has now committed the UK. So a European fighting force capable of "doing a Kosovo" (ie under the American um brella) may just about be conceivable by the middle of the decade.

A "European army" with the autonomy that implies is a different matter. Where, for example, would its intelligence come from? Solana has taken some tentative steps towards creating a Brussels version of the Cabinet Office's joint intelligence committee. But sooner or later it becomes a question of whether the Americans will share their material with non-British Europeans outside Nato. Charles Grant's recent pamphlet, Intimate Relations (www.cer.org.uk), wondered if Whitehall could build "firewalls" to stop European allies gaining access to American intelligence. The Americans are not going to tolerate genuinely independent intelligence-gathering in Europe: logically that would entail finding out what Washington knows.



Original article