US-EU Defence Relations: Competitors – or Partners in Crime?

Alexander van Steenderen and Karel

“As its foreign policy shows, the United States is clearly distancing itself from the common set of values defined after the tragic experiences of World Wars I and II and shared by Europeans and Americans in the framework of the transatlantic partnership since then. The European Union continues to hold fast to these values. By demonstrating its will to build the capacities to fight for them, the European Union will do its part to contribute to the safeguarding of multilateralism and the respect for democracy and international law in interstate relations for the years to come.”2


Although European countries are fully engaged in the wars started by US-led coalitions of the willing, in Iraq and Afghanistan, as far as left wing circles and public opinion are concerned it is mainly the United States which is assigned the blame. There is even supposed to be a big difference concerning the way wars are fought: an aggressive type of warfare waged by the US on the one hand, and a more humanitarian approach by European countries on the other. This line of reasoning has led mainly social-democratic and green parties throughout the European Union to support what eventually would become the Lisbon Treaty. They argue that it would bring forth a stronger, unified European Union with a common foreign policy and defence. According to them this would be the best way to counter the aggressive influence of the Atlantic partner in the world and so promote peace.

We believe that these arguments are very dangerous for a left seeking to oppose the US-dominated wars and attempting to build global structures to promote peace. In this paper we tentatively explore some developments which counter the above type of reasoning. We claim, on the contrary, that US interests are to some degree being served by stronger EU defence cooperation. Such cooperation is being used by the United States to compensate for its own slowly declining influence in the world, a decline which was neither caused nor stimulated by a more unified and independent European foreign policy. In this respect the focus of Europe on developing civil capabilities ready to support military endeavours must not be seen as providing an alternative to modern warfare, but as a complement. Such EU policy does not necessarily oppose regime change and encourages post-conflict nation building.

To illustrate this we will first look at recent developments in the EU-NATO relationship. Secondly, we will briefly sketch the institutional efforts of the EU to strengthen its defence cooperation and operational capabilities within the Lisbon Treaty and look at the real obstacles for its future development. Thirdly we will take a look at the military-industrial complex and its development on both sides of the Atlantic.

Context: Global competition

A traditional theme for European analysts has been the extent to which Europe can become a competitive bloc in world politics. Depending on the basic position of the analysts, they have argued that such a bloc is necessary to compete with the other power centres in the world, to maintain prosperity for the European population and to meet the coming global crises regarding migration, climate change, key resource shortages, or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Within the myriad schools of thought there is a clear distinction between those who want to tie this model of European unity to the United States, and those who view that former super-state as a rival to European aspirations. Clearly, these positions have different political implications.

However, by concentrating on competing theoretical models, the observer may miss the very practical developments which are the consequence of years of European integration on the one hand, and transatlantic ties on the other. We propose that in fact the slow but steady steps towards a European state, or at least a structure which performs many of the state’s traditional and essential functions, are being taken concurrently with the continued development of transatlantic ties.

In fact, the most important post-Cold War development has been the relative weakening of the US global position of sole superpower. As a result, the American power elites have re-orientated themselves towards Asia (as have the Europeans), but have also been forced to change their former transatlantic policies. Whereas in the Cold War past of uncontested US hegemony over the West, former Secretary of State Kissinger could claim that there was no-one to pick up the phone in Europe, more recently there have been numerous developments in the direction of such a central point of communication. Indeed, as far as the European elite is concerned, the successors of Mr Kissinger will soon be dealing with an institutionalised European foreign policy, with its own secretariat (although implementing this idea has proven to be much more difficult than envisioned, as we will show later).

However, a key aspect of this development, the relative decline of US influence in the world, is often ignored in this context. What Kissinger neglected to mention is that in his day the US much preferred not to have to deal with a united Europe. The fragmentation in fact rather suited previous American governments. This argument can still be heard in conservative circles in the US.3 However, in the contemporary world, the US has no choice: it cannot dictate the relationship and must extract maximum profit from it with a much-weakened hand.

All along, in fact, there has been one institution that has played a vital transatlantic role in transmitting American influence: namely NATO. NATO did not disappear after the Cold War, as many surmised that it would. Instead, under American prodding, it reinvented itself and went ‘out of area’. In so doing, it dragged along all NATO’s European member states, including those newly joined members of the Atlantic alliance. Let us see how.

NATO and the EU: A transformed relationship

The last twenty years have marked a decisive change in the relation between NATO and the EU, which was one way of defining the transatlantic alliance. Many European NATO members were, after all, also members of the EU. The one was a military alliance, the other an economic entity slowly developing common foreign policy goals. The post Cold War euphoria of the ‘90s masked a very real change in this relationship, framed above all by one crucial question: why should NATO continue to exist, now that it no longer had an enemy? There was a moment of hesitation before NATO set off on its process of expansion, from 16 members in 1990 to 26 in 2004. That hesitation was most apparent during the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the last decade of the twentieth century, which followed the ‘unfreezing’ of the Cold War boundaries. The EU failed spectacularly in its self-professed role as peacekeeper. On the contrary, the foolish recognition of Croatia in 1991, stimulated by the newly reunited major EU power Germany, accelerated the disintegration of the federation and the ensuing civil wars. The combined failure of the EU and UN peacekeeping efforts shifted the initiative back to NATO and therefore to the leading role of the US. Right up to today the splintered Balkans which were the result of this intervention have brought no definite peace to the region’s inhabitants.

One of NATO’s military interventions, the 1999 war in Kosovo, was in many ways a watershed moment for the alliance. Its summit, held in Washington just before the Kosovo war, formally laid the basis for out-of-area operations.4 In doing so it was following the implications of the fateful remark made by US Senator Lugar a year earlier, that NATO must “go out of area or out of business.”5 In essence the US could only maintain its influence in European affairs by the continued existence of the Atlantic alliance, which henceforth was in search of a mission.

The EU, on the other hand, on its path to a fully-fledged foreign policy, began developing a policy of peace-building missions involving the reconstruction of post-war regions, among them ‘failed states’. This was seen by some, mostly Social Democratic and Green parties across Europe, as an alternative to the more robust American intervention policies. In effect, the EU was gearing itself to take up the task of cleaning up the mess left by NATO military operations; hence such missions as EUFOR Althea in Bosnia-Herzegovina, or the smaller Proxima policing missions in Macedonia.6

Coalitions of the willing

A new raison d'être for NATO was provided by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which under President George W. Bush became the pretext for a powerful surge of US interventionism. Indeed, NATO declared its solidarity by activating Article V of its founding charter, which states: ”The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”7 The Bush administration made good use of the ensuing political momentum by initiating a war in Afghanistan in 2001 which was ostensibly aimed at capturing the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks but, perhaps not coincidentally, resulted in a major projection of US power in central Asia, in the immediate proximity of the future rival China and the Cold War enemy Russia. The US succeeded in involving many of its European NATO allies in this expedition. In this early period there was no involvement of the EU as such.

In fact, relations within NATO were strained to breaking point by another, far larger military operation in 2003 to remove the government of Saddam Hussein of Iraq, under the pretext of a fictional ‘weapons of mass destruction’ threat. This illegal war had far-reaching consequences because it effectively divided both NATO and the EU. In so doing it usefully identified the extremely pro-American members of these organisations. The governments of the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland and Spain, among others, chose to accept the American arguments for war even though their own intelligence services and advisers were disputing the existence of a casus belli and therefore its legality. France, Germany, Belgium and others were just as clearly opposed; hence the further development of a ‘coalition of the willing’. Since NATO could not be dragged along, the US made do with willing members (like the East European states) and a considerable number of allies from elsewhere, such as Australia. However, this proved to be a pivotal moment. The split made abundantly clear that a NATO dominated by the US no longer existed. Henceforth all operations would have to carried out by volunteer nation states.

Changing types of mission

In Afghanistan this had far-reaching consequences. The European NATO members, and later Canada, who were initially positive about the operation, began backing off when the short-term effort to capture a terrorist leader turned into a major guerrilla war with no end in sight. The bigger allies demarcated their involvement by limiting the military mandate under which their troops operated. As the war wore on and clear majorities opposing the war began to form on the home front, the NATO allies separately developed their own exit strategies. The opposition of the European participants translated into a stronger emphasis on the civilian, nation-building side of the war.8 Hence the distinction between the formally terrorist-hunting forces of Operation Enduring Freedom and the purported stabilisation and reconstruction mission of the ISAF/NATO force. This tendency was reflected in the birth of the EU police mission, meant to improve on the faltering German police training program. This however proved to be a fatal mistake. The demands of the guerrilla war, which under the newly elected President Obama was hugely expanded in 2009, inevitably influenced all of the civilian programs, including the EU police-training mission. Control of this mission was from 2005 onwards centred on the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A). This was the police part of the NATO mission which, by building up both an Afghan army and police force, fitted perfectly into the American plans for an efficient exit strategy while maintaining a presence in central Asia.9 The Afghan war in effect reflected a struggle between a much weakened US and its European allies over the correct strategy to shape future political developments in the region (not just Afghanistan).

The transformation of the police mission to its military role was, within the context of the guerrilla war, perfectly logical, as its American supporters have argued. The European arguments for building a civil society based on a properly trained police force were and are naïve, based more on political necessity (to convince unwilling voters at home) than reality. However, in the Netherlands the Green-Left party chose to pursue precisely this course, which can be seen as the logical extension of its vision of a humanitarian but interventionist Europe. By debating the issue in these terms, the far more fundamental question of occupying Afghanistan – and taking sides in a civil war without end – was avoided. This reflected the limits of American power: on the central issue of participating in the Afghan war with sufficient forces, the Europeans were imposing their own limits. However, they still kept up appearances by accepting the fictions surrounding the EU police-training mission. In fact, what was at stake in Afghanistan has little to do with the war: it is the continuation of the Atlantic Alliance under circumstances which differ hugely from those pertaining in the Cold War past.

Future NATO-EU missions

Perhaps the anti-piracy mission in the Indian Ocean is set to become the blueprint for transatlantic cooperation. There the US and EU agreed on the strategic priorities of protecting major shipping routes and the approaches to the oil fields. Hence the close cooperation between the EU mission Atlanta and NATO’s Ocean Shield.10 This alignment confirms that, essentially, EU security policies are developing in close parallel with those of the US.

There is also, however, a very important symbolic gesture being made in this specific cooperation. Although the majority of states which are members of both the EU and NATO are wary of the EU duplicating the efforts of NATO, it was the French who argued that the EU should perform a full blown military mission on its own. With this step the EU used the public support for fighting pirates to justify the need for deploying the Union’s own military capabilities, in addition to those needed for more ‘humanitarian’ type missions. At the same time it allowed Member States like Germany to choose to participate solely in the EU mission and not in NATO, while still supporting the same goals.11

EU defence cooperation after the Lisbon Treaty

As we have argued above, the transatlantic ties are changing, with the US playing a less dominant role. The big question is whether this has put the EU on a trajectory towards a common European defence which would enable the EU to pursue its interests independently from those of the US.

Seen from afar it would seem that the EU has taken big steps towards a common foreign and defence policy during the last decade. In 2003 the first EU police mission began, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The first military mission, mainly consisting of French troops, followed in the same year to the Democratic Republic of Congo. From January 2007 the first EU military units, the EU battlegroups, became operational. These are solely available to the EU and can be deployed only after an EU decision is taken to do so. Last but not least, in 2009 the Lisbon Treaty came into effect, creating new powers and institutions on foreign policy and defence, such as a diplomatic service. At the same time the existing European Defence Agency was integrated further and the first steps taken towards a common European defence.

In relation to the transformation of NATO sketched above, this could be seen as proof that the European countries are increasingly in agreement on their common interests, some of which are separate from those of the US. The development of EU military capabilities has been transformed into an effort to be less dependent on NATO capabilities and American consent for their use.

But in fact these developments took place in a period during which the EU was deeply divided on major foreign policy issues -- not just on the invasion of Iraq, but also on issues like the recognition of Kosovo and the relationship with Russia, especially concerning energy policies.12 Since the EU expansion to the East in 2004, a wide range of new issues and positions have to be taken into consideration. Although the member states agree on the need to create common positions and action, they still do not fully agree on what these common positions or this action should be and are wary of giving up the means to pursue and defend their own national interest. This is especially true for the two major European military (and nuclear-armed) powers: France and the UK.

One could question whether the Lisbon Treaty,13 which only recently entered into force, and specifically its provisions on foreign policy and defence, is going to change this divergence of interests. Let us recall that the content of the Lisbon Treaty finds its origins in the rejected ‘Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe’ which was drawn up in June 2004, one year after the US-led invasion of Iraq. If there had been any serious intent to steer the European Union away from US domination, as envisioned in the words of Janis Sakelariou and Tamara Keating quoted at the head of our article, then clearly there would have been some reference to it in the Lisbon Treaty.

But close examination of the Treaty shows that the EU does not replace the competences of member states on this issue, nor does the Treaty force European countries to take common positions in relation to those of the US. In fact, the Treaty seems to create more potential for strengthening EU military-civilian capabilities while avoiding political strains when applying them. Let us see how.

A Common Foreign Policy?

In 1992 the signing of the Maastricht Treaty brought into being a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) as part of the European Union. Although this new institution was described as a successor to the European Community it in fact coexisted alongside it. In contrast to the EC the EU powers and decision-making process were essentially intergovernmental. This meant that the EU could not act without explicit unanimous agreement from its member states, nor did it have many possibilities for delegating these powers. With the Lisbon Treaty the distinction between EU and EC ceases to exist, but unlike the Justice and Home Affairs section of the EU treaty, the CFSP retains its own special position in the treaties. As a consequence it is not subject to the ‘community method’, which would have implied that the European Commission would be responsible for proposing and executing policy; the decisions would be taken by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers based on Qualified Majority Vote (QMV), leaving no room for member states to block actions. Instead, the CFSP became a hybrid construction. The Lisbon Treaty created the function of High Representative (HR) of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the eventual holder of which was described in the rejected Constitutional Treaty as an ‘EU Foreign Minister’. Together with the new President of the European Council, the HR would represent the Union to the rest of the world on foreign issues. Instead, however, of providing the common telephone number Kissinger had wanted, it provided two additional telephone numbers to choose from. The functionaries answering these particular phones can act only on the basis of positions agreed upon by the member states. This strongly limits the options available in responding to crisis situations, as was illustrated by the recent developments in the Middle East. At the beginning of February the British Prime Minister David Cameron was publicly backing the US plan to call upon Mubarak to resign and hand over power to a military-backed interim government before holding speedy elections. This was after he failed to convince other European countries (mainly along the Mediterranean coast, with Italy in the forefront) to make such a statement on behalf of the EU.14 The response of the EU was seen as weak. So the more powerful members voiced their own opinions as to what should be done. Thus, the member states were not silenced and institutional rivalry further weakened the EU position.

José Barroso, Chair of the European Commission, has increasingly acted in a presidential manner, last year even presenting his own State of the Union policy speech. In this way he is attempting to win a role on the world stage. Even the rotating presidency of the Council, the body which directly represents the member states, continues in large part to exist. The resulting rivalry between the President of the European Council Van Rompuy and the Spanish presidency, regarding the organisation of a US-EU summit during last year, resulted in Obama cancelling the summit altogether.

Observing this high-level politics in practice, it is clear that the Lisbon treaty did not create a genuine common foreign policy and foreign minister. However, looking at it as a development, or 'progressive framing' as the Lisbon treaty describes it, the potential for the EU to steadily replace the Member States as actor on the world stage is real enough. Moreover, the significance of the post of High Representative is that it has now also become part of the European Commission as well as the Council, therefore creating possibilities for aligning and mobilising EU-competencies on trade and development with foreign policy issues. This increases the ‘soft power’ of the EU. The European External Action Service, institutionally separate from the Commission and the Council and under control of the HR, was created specifically for this purpose. It also ensures a further alignment of the internal and external security of the EU, which is continuing to blend further and further with issues like terrorism, cybercrime and migration, blurring the dividing lines. Intelligence gathering and exchange are central to this development.

Although the rule of unanimity continues in the CFSP decision-making process, it should be noted that the increase of EU possibilities to act is in no way a guarantee that these will be used only with the unanimous support of all of its members. The Treaty of Amsterdam had already made it possible for member states to abstain in votes on foreign policy issues (but not on the matter of voting for EU missions). Politically this means that member states can formally stay neutral on particular issues (as for instance Ireland does) without blocking the decision-making mechanism by the rest for using EU resources to pursue their interest. Clearly this procedure is important only for domestic political purposes, since one cannot imagine that the people in Afghanistan, for example, can differentiate between NATO/ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom, let alone differentiate the countries who support a mission from those who do not.

A flexible defence

The changes regarding defence cooperation made by the Lisbon treaty reflect this pursuit of more flexibility. The Lisbon treaty states the goal, to “implement a common foreign and security policy including the progressive framing of a common defence policy, which might lead to a common defence.” Although, as on foreign policy, the Lisbon Treaty does not create a common EU defence, it formally opens up the possibility of creating a common defence based on a unanimous decision of the member states to do so, and also creates new possibilities to evolve towards that step. Partially these new possibilities are a result of integrating the cooperation mechanisms and principles of the older and defunct West European Union (WEU) into a more important EU version of the NATO solidarity clause (Article 5 of the Washington Treaty). This forces the rest of the Union to act in the event that one of its member states is under attack.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, the European security and defence policy expands from one to five Articles. The five changes are: 1. Expanded "aims and ambitions" for the policy. 2. An expansion in the list of "Petersberg tasks",15 i.e. the humanitarian, crisis management and peace-building tasks which the EU may undertake.16 This opened up new possibilities for the EU to undertake military interventions. 3. The introduction into an EU Treaty for the first time of a reference to the European Defence Agency, a body established in 2004 by a decision of the member-states. This reference was meant to “strengthen the industrial base of the defence sector” and its "participation in defining a European capabilities and armaments policy", encouraging greater and more co-ordinated development of defence capabilities by member states, allowing them to join it on a voluntary basis.

4. Enhanced cooperation: a group which consists of a minimum of one third of the member states can now deepen their cooperation on both foreign policy and defence within the EU framework, after gaining permission from the European Council. 5. The introduction of the possibility of “permanent structured co-operation” allowing “those Member States whose military capabilities fulfil higher criteria and which have made more binding commitments to one another in this area with a view to the most demanding missions”. This would mean pooling defence resources, harmonisation on military equipment, common training etc.

Points 4 and 5 are designed to provide the EU with more flexibility, The enhanced cooperation enables a significant portion of the member states to circumvent blocks towards further integration thrown up by the rest. The Permanent Structured Cooperation is an attempt by the EU to define and develop its own military capabilities. Presently there is a major debate on whether this cooperation would be exclusive, by being limited to a group of states, or inclusive, allowing all member states to participate with defence units which meet the high standards required. This discussion is linked to an implicit choice: the possibility of the EU strengthening its defence capabilities based on a long-term strategy to reach a certain military capacity; or reducing the ambitions to second best and building capacities from the bottom up and incrementally. It is, however, important to note that the Treaty allows establishment of this Permanent Structured Cooperation by a qualified majority decision of the full Council. Hence no single member state can block the further strengthening of EU defence capabilities; only their potential use in EU missions. So, together with the potential for enhanced cooperation, the Lisbon Treaty opens the possibility for EU missions to draw on a number of resources: national troops, established multinational forces among the member states, as well as, at a later stage, the Permanent Structured Cooperation.

It would make no sense to pool defence capabilities if there were not some sort of agreement about their use and deployment. The rule of unanimity in foreign and defence issues would otherwise make them ineffective. Nevertheless, that is exactly the development we are witnessing in EU defence cooperation today. The flexibility introduced by the Lisbon Treaty resolves this paradox and allows the EU countries to strengthen their military capacities without being decisively dependent on European consensus for their use. This makes it possible for countries to continue to participate in missions of the able and willing.

No rival to NATO

The development of EU capacities is an indirect way of also strengthening NATO. The Lisbon Treaty itself is very clear, stating that “Commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which, for those States which are members of it, remains the foundation of their collective defence and the forum for its implementation.” So, since it is improbable that any EU member states will pull out of NATO, a strategy can be foreseen in which the EU would counter US influence in NATO further by integrating the EU capabilities with those of the member states in NATO, and vice versa. As we have seen, the fact that not all EU members are NATO members, and the desire of some states to maintain a neutral stance, need not prevent this.

The biggest problem is the political stalemate between Turkey and Cyprus. When in 2002 there were talks on how the EU and NATO could cooperate, leading to the so called Berlin-plus agreement,17 it was Turkey that blocked the consensus built around the definition of what concerns “assured access” to NATO planning, arguing that it would not have veto power over the Union’s deployment of a military force, under circumstances that would affect Turkey’s security. Although Turkey is a candidate for EU membership and the United States has repeatedly supported quick admittance to resolve the problem, this is not likely to occur in the near future, due to the lack of public support in many member states, quite apart from the problems with Cyprus.18 Besides, European integration in itself must also face the problems in the euro zone, which could result in divisions amongst the current members.

Strengthening EU-NATO capabilities

With NATO and EU going ‘out of area’ and the diminishing threat of a conventional attack on their own territory, the members have transformed their armed forces to make them suitable for performing expeditionary missions. The EU and NATO have separately identified gaps in defence capacities and are attempting to coordinate and complement the material procurement of equipment. These goals of EU and NATO do overlap; EU shortages are NATO shortages, but only the EU also has goals involving civilian capabilities. These are not always appreciated by the US: “But just as the EU’s capacity for common action on the soft power side has gone up, our collective transatlantic commitment on the hard power side, has objectively gone down…Europe needs, the United States needs, NATO needs, the democratic world needs – a stronger, more capable European defense capacity. An ESDP with only soft power is not enough.”19

Countries which are members of both the EU and NATO have been keen to prevent duplicating capabilities and thus to avoid the extra costs. France is the most pronounced advocate for EU defence resources independent form NATO, as for example in strengthening an operational planning centre, but when it renewed its military membership of NATO in 2009,20 it illustrated that it regarded strengthening the European defence as being equivalent to strengthening NATO and the transatlantic ties. President Sarkozy was also very clear when he later responded to the critique of the opposition Socialist Party that the return to NATO "without conditions or tangible benefits," would be fatal for plans, long championed by France, to build an independent European military capacity, by saying: “The return should put a final stop to the nagging suspicion among some of our partners who often thought we wanted to develop European defence in order to compete with NATO.”21 On the other side of the Atlantic the response was also clear. US President Obama stated: “France's full participation in the NATO military command structure will further contribute to a stronger Alliance and a stronger Europe,” and “I also welcome the further strengthening of European defence capabilities.”22

Fighting declining budgets

In addition to the change in the type of conflict for which the member states were preparing, the global economic crisis and the budget cuts it has triggered in Europe have put more pressure on this process of cooperation and coordination. Defence budgets have tended to be cut more than any other. The stakes are high, or as one analyst put it: “Could cuts in defence spending across the EU establish a collective capability to act autonomously or join the U.S. future military operations? Or will reduced troop and equipment levels across Europe leave the U.S. in a situation where it will have to act alone in expeditionary missions – a situation that many analysts say would jeopardize NATO’s collective future?”23 European countries have implemented budget cuts by taking steps that would have seemed impossible in the past. A prominent example is the UK-French plan to drastically cut their naval air strength and share aircraft carriers, as well as coordinating the deployment of their strategic nuclear deterrent. Last December France, Germany and Poland published a memorandum stating the following: “To keep momentum we need to give a fresh impetus to European Security and Defence Policy, in full complementarity with NATO… We see a specific need to 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, taking due care for complementarity with national and NATO planning capabilities.”24

Circumventing declining public support

The focus of EU cooperation as we witness it today is primarily aimed not at activities in the higher spectrum of violence, but primarily in fields like logistics, training, information technology, and research and development. Recent steps taken under EDA include the common procurement and setting up of a European Air Transport Fleet by a number of member states. Although this common funding is regarded as meeting real shortages, there is also a political side to it. The deployment of soldiers abroad always triggers intensive public debate in most member states, because public support is essential. The forms of cooperation described are somewhat invisible to public scrutiny and therefore draw less attention.

A second focal point is the ostensibly more humanitarian side of warfare, civil-military cooperation. Third, a group of member states have taken on the role of filling in gaps that are created when other allies withdraw troops, as has happened in Afghanistan and Bosnia. The effect is that despite decreased public support for military missions, European allies and member states help maintain the expeditionary presence in place, long after the initial conflict.

In fact, the strengthening of European defence does not amount to the EU steering away from US-led coalitions of the willing. Instead, the development of EU military capability without common consent and control over its use, fits perfectly into a strategy of ‘coalition of the willing’ led by the US.

A Euro-Atlantic military industrial complex?

Besides maintaining transatlantic ties by coordinating NATO and EU defence planning, there has also been a closer interaction between the military-industrial complexes of North America and Europe. The EU has taken the first steps towards strengthening both its own military industrial base and Euro-Atlantic cooperation. A recent report presented in the now defunct Assembly of the West European Union made the following recommendations to the EU member states:

1. Pursue the efforts at national and multilateral level and within the European Defence Agency and NATO to strengthen the European defence technological and industrial base;

2. Endeavour in their bilateral relations with the United States and within the framework of NATO and of EU-US relations, to promote and defend the interests of European companies on the transatlantic defence market, just as the United States does for its companies;

3. Task the European Defence Agency with identifying sectors for cooperation between the participating member states and the United States in the fields of technology and defence equipment, in coordination with the relevant NATO agencies and committees. 25

There has also been a growing cross-pollination of the European – especially British – defence industry with the Americans. For example, the American Joint Strike Fighter project (JSF), aimed at equipping a large part of the European armed forces for the foreseeable future with an American aircraft, typically creates intensive ties between the two blocs.26 Although US nationalist pressures resulted in the failure of large-scale European participation in another project – the replacement of the fleet of airborne tankers for the US Air Force – the continued push for yet another project, European Missile Defence, will strengthen industrial ties.

These contracts do not simply result in the reduction of unit production costs through advantages of scale: they also result in armed forces which have similar equipment and training, which makes common command structures and coordination on the battlefield possible. This in turn makes involvement by European states in ‘coalitions of the willing’ a continued likelihood. An important litmus test of our hypothesis would be whether the JSF and missile defence projects will in fact be continued in the teeth of increasing opposition (due to massive cost overruns, technical failures and the resultant delays). If they are, then that would be a clear sign that transatlantic defence cooperation is regarded as viable. If not, and no alternative project is set up, that would then be an indication of weakening ties, as was the failure of the airborne tanker project.

There is a solid economic basis for this military-industrial arrangement. By far the largest part of the international trade relations of both Europe and the US is transatlantic. Most important of all: in many post-Cold War conflicts both NATO and the European Union have been involved. A new variant of the special relationship could well be built, no longer restricted to loyal allies like the UK and Netherlands, but broadened to include France and the new East European member states of both NATO and EU.


The declining influence of the US has not led to a common European defence, let alone created a serious challenge to the US political agenda. But the formal fact that EU countries are sovereign in their decisions to deploy troops abroad, and no standing EU army exists, does not mean that no progress in the creation of centralised EU defence is being made. The institutions are in place, the economies are intertwined, and there is a long tradition of military cooperation, up to and including the most recent wars.

It is not at all impossible that the enthusiasm expounded by some to create centralised European institutions, combined with serious attempts to compensate the inevitable national defence budget cuts, will result in a closely coordinated military structure with its own European industrial base -- a centralised structure which could well be fitted into a transformed transatlantic bloc capable of projecting its power all over the world. That seems to be a development which is inimical to social progress and to a world where conflicts are solved not by force of arms, but by diplomacy. There is therefore a great need for socialists in Europe to work together in confronting this development both inside and outside the national arena. We must articulate political goals and demands which question the real developments in European defence policies, not hypothetical future plans.


1. Alexander van Steenderen is a policy assistant for the Parliamentary Group of the Socialist Party in the Tweede Kamer, the Netherlands’ equivalent to the House of Representatives. Karel Koster works for the research department of the Socialist Party on foreign affairs and security issues. The authors are responsible for the content of this paper. The views presented therein are not necessarily those of the Socialist Party.

2. “Safeguarding Multilateralism: The Urgency of European Defense”, by Jannis Sakelariou (Member of the European Parliament 1999-2004, Group of the Party of European Socialists, Federal Republic of Germany) and Tamara Keating, 2003.

3. See for example “How President’s Obama EU Policy Undercuts U.S. Interests”, Sally McNamara, 16 February 2011, Backgrounder, The Heritage Foundation.
4. Washington Summit Communiqué, meeting of the North Atlantic Council, 24 April 1999.
5. Senator Richard Lugar, “NATO: Out of Area or Out of Business,” Remarks Delivered to the Open Forum of the US State Department, 2 August 1993, Washington D.C.
8. See the words of Mark Leonard, nowadays director of the think-thank ‘European Council on Foreign Relations’ on how this type of warfare is ‘branded’ as typically European to distinguish it from the U.S. approach: “Europe doesn't change countries by threatening to invade them: its biggest threat is having nothing at all to do with them. The promise of eventual membership has transformed the nature of countries as diverse as Poland, Turkey and Romania. And while the EU is deeply involved in Serbia's reconstruction and supports its desire to be ’rehabilitated’ as a European state that eventually joins the EU, the US offers Colombia no such hope of integration through multilateral institutions or structural funds, only the temporary ‘assistance’ of American military training missions and aid.” (Irish Times, 18 February 2005.)
9. United States Government Integrated Civilian-Military Campaign Plan for Support to Afghanistan USFOR-Afghanistan, Sept. 2009. 10. “Germany to back NATO anti-piracy mission in EU camouflage,” 20 February 2009,
11. Nathan G..D. Garrett and Ryan C. Hendrickson, “NATO’s Anti-piracy Operations, Strategic and Political Implications,” Atlantisch Perspectief no. 8, 2009.
12. “Russia Gas Pipeline Heightens East Europe’s Fears”, New York Times, 13 December 2009.
13. Treaty of Lisbon amending the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty establishing the European Community, signed at Lisbon, 13 December 2007, entered into force on 1 December 2009.
15. A list of security, defence and peacemaking tasks, originally set out by the Western European Union (WEU) in June 1992, named after the Petersberg mountain hotel outside Bonn, Germany, where the 1992 Council meeting took place.
16. Article 43 of the Lisbon Treaty stipulates: “The tasks referred to in Article 42(1), in the course of which the Union may use civilian and military means, shall include joint disarmament operations, humanitarian and rescue tasks, military advice and assistance tasks, conflict prevention and peace-keeping tasks, tasks of combat forces in crisis management, including peace-making and post-conflict stabilisation. All these tasks may contribute to the fight against terrorism, including by supporting third countries in combating terrorism in their territories.”
17. North Atlantic Council and EU Political and Security Committee. EU/NATO Declaration on ESDP (press release, 16 December 2002).
19. Ambassador Victoria Nuland, United States Permanent Representative to NATO, Speech to Presse Club and AmCham, Paris, France, February 22, 2008.
20. In 1966 France left NATO's military command structure and kicked NATO headquarters out of Paris. De Gaulle wanted France to stand apart from US domination of post-war Western Europe. But despite taking its distance from NATO's top decision-making body, France never left the alliance. When it returned to again participate in the military command structure, it was still the fourth-largest contributor of troops. France participates fully in NATO's missions in Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan. Furthermore, Germany showed France that it was possible to be a member of NATO and at the same time oppose US leadership by opposing the invasion of Iraq.
21. ‘Sarkozy risks NATO gamble for European defence,’ AFP, 9 February 2009.
25. Axel Fischer, “The transatlantic defence equipment market REPORT on behalf of the Technological and Aerospace Committee.” Germany EPP/CD Group Document A/2072, 16 June 2010.

26. “The Role of Transatlantic Defense Alliances in a Globalizing World.” Dr. Nayantara Hensel Center for Defense Management Research US Naval Postgraduate School.