During informal policy discussions by EU Foreign Ministers on Monday, the EU’s representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, once again raised the idea of a permanent EU military headquarters, a concept supported by the current Polish presidency of the European Council. However, the United Kingdom emphatically resists this idea, concerned with overlapping functions with the NATO HQ and the costs involved. Because such a move requires unanimity in the Council, this push for a central EU military headquarters will not succeed.
This debate, and the in-fighting it has produced, stem from the earliest foundations of EU defense policy: The creation of the EU Military Staff (EUMS) in 2001 and accompanying “Common Security and Defense Policy.” These structures address perceived gaps in Europe’s collective defense policies, as well as bolster cooperation on non-NATO civil-military tasks such as disaster response or peacekeeping.
The creation of the EUMS was a policy victory for EU defense advocates such as France, who did not want NATO to be Europe’s only option in case of a military emergency. Since then, military missions and the development of EU battle groups have all marked progress in the EU’s growing military role.
However, this structure has to acquiesce to the reality that most EU member states are also NATO members: 22 cross-over, as of 2011. As such, member states are understandably cautious of duplications between the two. Firstly, because of the political message it sends and secondly, because paying twice for equitable equipment or staff is undesirable.
As such, the EU does not have an operational command capacity. The organization instead relies on four regional member state commands made available for operations.
Here is where the contention lies; EU HQ proponents point to the inefficiencies of forming ad-hoc command arrangements for each mission. “Each time you produce a headquarters in a different country and finish the mission, you lose the expertise of that project," Ashton said after Monday’s meeting.
Adding momentum, the so called “Weimar Triangle” of France, Germany, and Poland took up the case for an EU HQ in late 2010. They argued it will “improve our capacities to plan and to conduct operations and missions, to strengthen cooperation among our militaries and to create synergies in times of scarce resources.”
Meanwhile, the UK stands as the loudest voice in opposition. Citing both financial cost and concerns about undermining NATO, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague unequivocally said, “We will not agree to it now and we will not agree to it in the future. That is a red line." Indeed, due to the UK’s demand that an EU HQ be mooted, the Council’s defense review is now deadlocked.
So, who is in the right? Considering that the EU is already conducting military operations, an EU HQ to coordinate them is not as groundbreaking as the UK maintains. Yet, as a staunch NATO advocate, London is right to be concerned about developments which would duplicate, or potentially supplant, Alliance functions.
Perhaps, between the two extremes offered, there is room for compromise, such as an EU civil-military relations HQ. However, as of right now, the UK will use its veto. As the Council operates under unanimity, this means the EU HQ will not happen.
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