Open Europe Blog

EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton is absent from the meeting of EU defence ministers in Majorca today – the first to be held since the Lisbon Treaty came into force.

AFP reports that the defence ministers will be considering increased permanent structured co-operation, where several member states can move cooperation on common security and defence policy forward on their own under the terms of the Treaty, with the say-so of only a qualified majority of member states.

However, Lady Ashton has been double booked, and will instead attend the investiture ceremony of the new Ukranian President, missing discussions on how Lisbon will impact on defence cooperation. One EU diplomat said they has been really looking forward to hearing Ashton’s views, “Especially as, thanks to the treaty, the opportunity is there to reinforce Europe’s defence, to give it more visibility”.

Another rather snippy EU diplomat also said, “Her predecessor Javier Solana didn’t miss a single meeting of this type with the defence ministers. Something has changed in the order of priorities.” Jean Quatremer describes Ashton’s “empty-chair policy” as “all the more infuriating” because NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is to attend.

Spain, current holder of the EU Presidency, has made relaunching EU defence strategy one of its priorities of its six month term. The Spanish Defence Minister Carme Chacon has said that one of the issues defence ministers are working towards is “progress towards a European armed force; step by step, but that is our objective.” She has that objective in common with Germany, whose Foreign Minister said earlier in the month that the creation of a European army should be the long term goal of common security and defence policy.

With various EU defence ministers dreaming of a European army, the US yesterday made more noises about Europe’s unwillingness to contribute to NATO, with Defence Secretary Robert Gates saying that the “pacification of Europe” has gone too far and is “an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st [century]”, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for an “honest discussion” of European defence spending.

Ashton’s decision to make a ceremonial visit to the Ukraine rather than discuss co-ordinated EU defence policy will not doubt be frustrating for the French and Germans, who have been talking about a Franco-German security policy driving EU defence, but is a telling reminder to the outside world of the EU’s preference for pomp and ceremony over dealing with the challenges of the here and now. For one, the US’ patience is clearly running out.

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