A Push-back to the CEPS Task Force Report on “More Union in European Defence”

Solutions to the perceived Russian threat to European security must not be left to military experts alone, as this report demonstrates. Europe must tap into the relevant multi-disciplinary expertise coming from area studies if it is to do better. Read on…





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          A Push-back to the CEPS Task Force Report on “More Union in European Defence”


                                by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


Earlier this year the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), one of the most authoritative think tanks in Brussels, issued a 25 page brochure entitled “More Union in European Defence,” making the case for concrete steps to be taken by the European Member States in the direction of forming a European Army.

The timeliness of this tightly argued report cannot be overstated. Within weeks of its appearance, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker issued a call for the creation of just such an Army. 

In what follows I will critique this report, which might appear to be an unreasonably ambitious challenge for someone who is not a security professional were it not for two factors.  First, the report itself is a model of transparency and integrity. It incorporates counter-arguments to its recommendations which, to a neutral reader, outweigh by far the recommended course of action.  Second, there is an inexplicable flaw in the composition of the panel of experts responsible for the report.


To be sure, chair of this CEPS Task Force is Javier Solana, one of Europe’s best names in the field. Solana was NATO Secretary General from 1995-1999,  followed directly by 10  years of service as the EU High Representative for Common Foreign Policy and Security Policy. Two of his close assistants from the past,  Nick Witney and Helmar Linnenkamp, join him on the Task Force. Then there is also a second former NATO Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. 

With all due respect, the aforementioned were all deeply involved in creating the circumstances that today find Europe in an extremely dangerous confrontation with Russia over Ukraine specifically and, more broadly, over the security architecture governing the Continent. Javier Solana helped formulate and implement NATO expansion to the former Warsaw Bloc countries and former Soviet Republics of the Baltics; he helped formulate and implement the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy. Both programs ultimately crossed Russia’s red lines.

The Task Force also includes a former President of one Member State, Latvia, a Baltic country that is at the forefront of those that have provoked and fueled the present crisis. The remainder of the panel includes several politicians from centrist parties; and a good number of experts from various European think tanks and universities in various spheres of international affairs including security and defense policy, financial regulation, EU international law. There even appears to be one expert in Middle Eastern studies with a knowledge of Arabic.

What is missing is precisely any expertise on Russia out of the 19 members of the Task Force.  This is not merely an anomaly, it is a fatal flaw given that the entire logic for more integrated European armed forces and a better common defense is precisely the Russian challenge that has arisen ever since the onset of the Ukraine crisis and Russian annexation of (or ‘reunification with’) Crimea one year ago. 

I will return to this point later. For now let us move on to the question of internal contradictions in the Report between the exposition of the defense and security problem Europe currently faces, the proposed way forward and the potent obstacles to any moves down the road recommended.


The Report sets out a remarkably frank analysis of the status quo, meaning the failings of common defense today, the wastefulness of the 190 billion euro aggregate spending by European Member States and the lack of coordination in R&D, the lack of timely information sharing about budgeting for national armed forces.  It is also very explicit about the forces, economic and political, working against any change. These begin with the ongoing economic travails of Europe which began in 2008 and have led to belt-tightening budgets which resist calls to higher defense spending, namely to reach the hoped-for 2% of GDP.  Add to this the problems facing those who would add to Brussels’ competences in the face of the wave of Euroskepticism that has swept across European populations thanks to pain from the austerity and the Euro crisis, which violate the EU’s founding principle of solidarity. But current financial strains aside, the Report recognizes the sovereignty issues of the Member States that work against their pooling force capabilities. And the sovereignty is not just a matter of stubbornness or jealousy by each state of its assets; it is differing perceptions of security threats and resources required. It is not by chance that France has traditionally looked South at threats and Germany has looked East.

The Report nonetheless bravely formulates what it considers to be realizable objectives to make things better, if not to move directly to the stated objective of a European Defense Union.

That being said, it is up to the reader to decide whether objective obstacles to a common defense outweigh the subjective wishes of the authors of the report, however reasonable and modest they may seem taken in the abstract.

At this point I must invoke the anecdote of the Grand Vizier giving his Sultan the roll call list of reasons why there could be no 21 gun salute that day, finally coming to the single reason trumping all others: that there was no gunpowder available.

The ‘no gunpowder’ in the present case is the immediate reaction of the UK government to Commission President Juncker’s call for an EU Army:   Britain absolutely refuses to sign up; Britain has its own defense interests, in Gibraltar, in the Falklands and elsewhere which it will not make subject to the very different interests of European Commissioners.  And without British participation, no European Defense Union, no European Army is thinkable.

We must remember that the populists in UKIP are holding David Cameron’s feet to the fire on this. No sooner did Jean-Claude Juncker make his address on the European Army than Nigel Farage came out and said “I told you so,” meaning that this kind  aggrandizement of power by Brussels at the expense of the Member States was precisely why the UK should leave the Union.

Meanwhile, there is another wholly separate line of reasoning that one can apply against the argumentation for a European Defense Union and European Army.  This is to peel away the well-defined and agreed upon military threat or potential for threat posed by the Russian armed forces today and look back a bit at the political dimension which brought us to the present state of affairs. For there can be no doubt that had the European Union pursued a more politically astute foreign policy and taken proper cognizance of Russian national interests upon which it impinged by snatching up Ukraine between November 2013 and February 2014 as it did, we would not be in a New Cold War today. There was no talk whatsoever of an aggressive Russian foreign policy, of threats of hybrid warfare, or of the Baltics being overrun prior to 22 February 2014. None. 


Similarly, if I may clean out the stables, the other security threat identified in the CEPS Report as justifying a European Defense Union and European Army, the one in North Africa, is the direct result of the EU’s wrongheaded foreign policy and military choices during the Arab Spring, and particularly the EU’s military intervention in Libya leading to the murder of Colonel Gaddafi and the subsequent state of chaos spreading out to the East and West along the Mediterranean and south through the Sahel into Mali.


There are those who interpret the notion of creating a European Army as a sign of the growing rift between the Old Continent and the United States.  In effect, from the very beginning of the confrontation with Russia over Ukraine there have been voices in the United States Congress calling for armed assistance to the Ukrainian side. This was not greeted with any enthusiasm in Europe, which went along with the alternative response to “Russian aggression” by imposing ever more punishing sanctions on Russian leaders and on key economic sectors in Russia. This hidden divergence in policy came into the open in early February 2015, when in view of the pending disastrous defeat of the Ukrainian army at Debaltseve, Washington hawks publicly placed great pressure on President Obama to kick aside restraint and send lethal weapons to Kiev. This real threat and the escalation of violence it would provoke in Eastern Ukraine led to a remarkable demarche by Chancellor Merkel that was denounced by the American hawks and put in the public arena the widening chasm in diplomatic and military policies between Europe and the United States. 

In this context, talk of a European Army which would support NATO but have a separate identity not subject to control by Washington may have seemed to be reasonable and timely to its proponents. Regrettably or not, as I say, a European Defense Union or European Army is simply not feasible.

That leaves Europe with the unpalatable choice of submitting to a US diktat on arming Ukraine and facing a hot war on its borders that might suck the EU into an unpredictable, likely unwinnable open war with Russia.


What is to be done, then, about this cul de sac into which European military strategy is headed?


I would suggest that when you cannot move forward, think of backing up. To be specific, threats which have emerged due to poorly conceived and under-informed foreign policy can be put back in their box only by revising that foreign policy in such manner as to remove the sources of conflict. In this case, the solution is recognition of Ukraine as a neutral power that belongs neither to the EU sphere of influence nor is a candidate for NATO membership. It also means revisiting the nationalities policies of Estonia and Latvia, which were known to violate European principles of human rights with respect to their Russian speaking populations when they had been largely stripped of citizenship by the post-Soviet governments. The solution of convenience and back room deals among European officials that led to their blind eye to this festering abuse in 2004 when the new Member States joined the Union must be reversed. That alone is the sustainable solution to alleged fifth columns of Moscow in the Baltics alluded to obliquely in the CEPS report.

These solutions to the perceived Russian threat are possible only when Europe taps into the relevant expertise coming from area studies and does not rely on fatuous notions such as Angela Merkel’s supposedly deft hand with Russia because she commands the language.  Europe can and must do better.




© Gilbert Doctorow, 2015




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G. Doctorow is the European Coordinator, American Committee for East West Accord, Ltd. He is a Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. Doctorow’s latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide.