While everyone is (understandably) focused on Brexit, there is much more going on in Brussels that needs attention. Near the top of that list has to be plans for closer EU security and defence cooperation. Big decisions are due before December and – as of yet – the arguments have not had much of an airing.
The reasons for this intensified activity are clear: the security threats to EU member states and citizens are multiplying even as traditional defence structures come under pressure. As Donald Trump veers from dismissing NATO, to embracing Russia, to threatening North Korea and Iran, Europeans look to what they might do together to strengthen their own security. As terrorism strikes indiscriminately across Europe, governments seek new ways to counteract those threats. As budgets in Europe have tightened, defence departments search for creative ways to share costs and coordinate planning. As cyber attacks proliferate – crashing national computer systems or undermining democratic elections – EU governments hunt for means to secure these and other critical infrastructures. Another catalyst for all this activity has been Brexit itself. The withdrawal of British military capacity from the EU is a big hit, but this will be offset by the disappearance of long-standing British vetoes against further security and defence cooperation.
Ireland too faces threats. While our geography offers both physical and psychological distance, the threats are real. Ireland is a global centre for social media and data storage. We rely on critical IT and energy infrastructures. We host headquarters of some of the highest profile multi-national companies in the world. We have a hugely important tourism industry – a big part of which is focused on North America. We have an open and welcoming society that we want to protect. For all of these reasons, and many more, we cannot afford simply to try and keep our heads down, hoping threats don’t materialize. We need to have a serious conversation about national security. We spend less on defence than any other country in the EU and globally we rank 145th out of 152. Of course nobody sees increased defence spending as a goal in and of itself, but it does define our capacity – a capacity that is today visibly below the threshold necessary to meet the threats that we face.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has said that more progress has been made on intensifying EU security and defence cooperation in the last year, than was achieved in the last 10 years put together. Setting the spin aside, there are certainly big developments on the immediate horizon. These include a new €500m annual budget for joint security and defence projects (e.g. for designing and procuring new equipment), a new system of coordinated defence planning and budgeting, more shared funding of overseas missions, new planning and command structures for joint civilian/military missions and – significantly – bringing together member states that want to move further down the road of security and defence cooperation. This last is based on existing EU treaty provisions which allow for so-called ‘permanent structured cooperation’ in defence.
For Ireland, all of this poses striking challenges. To date, our commitment to European security and defence can best be described as ambivalent. This is notwithstanding a strong and popular track record in UN-mandated overseas military operations – many of which, like our current naval engagement in Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean, have been EU-led and commanded. Indeed. Ireland’s participation rate in EU security and defence missions and operations has been, proportionately, among the highest in the EU and that engagement is now the bedrock for capacity-building in the Defence Forces. At home, however, EU security and defence cooperation continues to be seen as a cost, even a penalty, of our EU membership, something to be hidden at best, to be minimized at least and in some political quarters to be avoided at all costs.
Nothing now on the EU table is compulsory. Nothing that is now being decided on would entail the loss of an absolute veto on the overseas deployment of our military personnel or ships. Nothing proposed would require a constitutional amendment to join an EU ‘common defence’. As these EU policy proposals have developed, Federica Mogherini has repeatedly highlighted the fact that 75 percent of Europeans support an EU common defence and security policy. In Ireland, that support is at 66 percent (Eurobarometer 461, 2017). What is on the table is a menu of options deserving of serious debate as well as thoughtful and informed decision-making.
That debate and decision making needs to be based on a serious root and branch review of the security threats that Ireland faces, the capacities that we have to meet those threats and the identification of gaps between those threats and that capacity. Those gaps need then to be addressed through a National Security Strategy which can factor in the means by which EU cooperation can help fill those gaps – at minimum direct cost. The scope for ‘pooling and sharing’ defence resources in Europe is large and thus far pretty well untapped. Ideally, this kind of analysis needs to occur on a regular basis – at least every two or four years – and engage a wide range of stakeholders. This function might best be mapped onto the responsibilities of a National Security Council – designed to integrate security planning at a national level and break down the policy-making silos and intelligence bunkers that currently exist.
It really is time to discuss whether we think security and defence matters, to plan accordingly, and to consider how those plans might best be advanced through our EU membership.