Open Europe Blog

Speaking to the Polish Parliament yesterday, Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski pointed the finger at the UK for not pulling its weight in the domain of European defence, claiming that he was “disappointed” that the UK did not want to build up joint EU defence capabilities, and that those member states that wanted to ought to use the ‘enhanced co-operation’ clause in the Lisbon Treaty to go ahead without it.

Sikorski set out a slightly distopian vision of the future in which:

“Tired by parsimony on defence budgets and Europe’s general inefficiency, the US leaves Nato. The post-Western vacuum is filled by Russia in the east and by China in Asia. Transformational crises continue in the Arab world [but] Europe no longer sets a good example. And where is Poland in this black vision? Left to its own devices, on the periphery of a Europe mired in lethargy. Struggling with unfinished modernisation and deprived of a solid basis for national security.”

However, actions speak larger than words, and it worth pointing out that Poland’s record on defence spending falls short of Sikorski’s rhetoric; 1.9% of GDP – below the 2% recommended minimum set by NATO. Moreover, when offered an opportunity to cooperate with other European and NATO countries in last years’ Libyan operation it decided to not to get involved, despite being pressed to do so by NATO leaders (although the government did volunteer logistical support).

Sikorski is however right about one thing – Europe’s unwillingness to shoulder the burden of its own defence. The Libyan operation exposed this on a grand scale; although on paper it was an impressive show of European (and non European) cooperation, with states such as France, the UK, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden all sending planes to enforce to no-fly zone. Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, Spain and Turkey also helped to some extent and Estonia and Croatian said they would also help if need be, but Poland and Germany did not help and Cyprus was actively opposed.

Furthermore, the operation exposed Europe’s continued reliance on the US. France and the UK were for instance unable to operate independently, having to rely on US command and control, logistics and assets, with the strains on their forces quickly exposed.

So why has Sikorski decided to attack the UK for preventing the EU having a larger role in defence? Most likely it is a form of political displacement activity: Sikorski knows EU defence budgets are under pressure and there is no real prospect of EU states increasing their capabilities. He knows this structural problem would not be alleviated by more EU structures or headquarters duplicating those that already exist in NATO, but by blaming Europe’s defence failings on the UK he is at least fuelling a debate over the future of Europe’s defensive structures.

In our view, if Poland and other European states want to be serious on defence (if they don’t that’s a national democratic choice which others have to accept) then they should actually stick to the 2% of GDP NATO minimum guideline. Ironically the only EU member states to comfortably exceed it at the moment (apart from the UK at 2.7%) is Greece (2.9%) – the one country that should cut its defence budget. The USA by contrast to the EU average of 1.7% spends a staggering 5.4% of its GDP on defence. EU countries should also reform their defence capabilities by investing in deployable modern forces. In the modern world cooperation will, as seen in Libya, be via variable alliances and groupings, in that the breath of NATO is indispensable. It is not only Poland that fears a defenceless Europe beholden to Russia, but if it is going to lead on this issue it will have to pulls its own weight first.

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