Global Policy Forum

Flexing EU Muscles

Radio Netherlands
September 15, 2004

European Union defence ministers are meeting later this week in the Netherlands, which currently holds the grouping's six-month rotating presidency. It's an informal gathering, but the ministers will discuss the key issue of giving the EU some more military muscle and, by extension, political clout.

One item on the agenda are the so-called EU battle groups, units of 1500 soldiers ready for quick deployment abroad, primarily at the request of the United Nations. Britain wants all of the larger member states to provide one such group.

Enough talk, it's time for action, says British Defence Secretary Geoffrey Hoon in this interview with Radio Netherlands:

"What I think is important is that the Dutch - and we've seen how successful Dutch presidencies have been in the past – continue the process of taking forward our efforts to improve European military capabilities. I think it's important these days that during what is a short six-month presidency no one expects there to be huge headline-grabbing achievements."

"Very often the announcements are in any event the result of previous presidencies that have built up the momentum and built up the work. The Netherlands has a tremendous reputation in the presidency of doing the solid work that is necessary to make progress, and I'm sure the real test is whether, at Noordwijk and beyond, we have steadily improved the process of augmenting European military capabilities."

RN: "Will you be looking more for increased capabilities or for a new theory behind European defence?"

"I think we have done a lot of work on the theory. I think it's now a question of trying to ensure that we can deliver on that. The battle group concept, for example - broadly accepted across the European Union as being a good idea: getting troops into the field quickly, supporting UN operations - means that you need rapidly deployable forces. What we now have to do is to ensure that the theory is matched in reality and that countries are committed to deploying forces in that way."

RN: "Looking at the long-term prospects; even if the European missions are fulfilled as laid down in the so-called headline goal by the year 2010, there will still be this huge gap in both military spending and, more specifically, military capabilities with the United States. Will Europe be condemned forever to play second fiddle to the US?"

"I don't think it's a question of playing second fiddle, but it is a question of being able to make a coherent contribution as European nations. Whether we do that as part of some wider alliance with the United States, or frankly – and this is the issue I think for European nations – there are occasions on which Europe has an interest, where the United States stands aside and we need real military capabilities to be able to defend Europe's position, that means that we've got to work hard. As I've said to you already: to translate the theory into practice. We have made significant progress, and still a great deal of work to do. But I'm confident that the Dutch presidency will contribute to that progress."

RN: "Talking about battle groups, one obvious possibility springs to mind and that is a combined UK-Dutch battle group involving marine commandos which have already been working together for years and years…."

"I've seen for myself: one of the very first things that I saw when I was appointed Secretary of State for Defence five years ago, was a joint exercise involving Dutch commandos and British royal marines. And of course, as you say, cooperation has gone on for many years. I was privileged to come to Rotterdam recently to see the commemoration, the anniversary of that cooperation, and it does seem to me that that is a very important basis on which cooperation could be taken forward."

"But can I emphasise that it's also important that individual nations like the United Kingdom offer a battle group on a national basis. We want other countries matching the contributions that we have offered, so obviously there is an opportunity for cooperating with the Netherlands. But equally I want to see other countries bring forward proposals for national battle groups which is what we will be doing."

RN: "In plain English, you want to see each and every larger European country provide its own battle group?"

"I think it is important that having set out theory, that we deliver in practice, and that means, as you say, the larger countries delivering their own battle group."

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