Keynote Address: ‘Changing the Debate on Europe’, 2011 Dahrendorf Symposium in Berlin




In his speech Robert Murphy contends that there has been a quiet crisis of confidence, which predates the financial crisis about the European Union and European Union member states ruling the world stage. This crisis also affects European defence policy.

We are living through an important moment for defence policy.

Particularly now that the conflict in Libya has come to an end and the committed forces are coming home, while in Afghanistan NATO forces are trying to find the correct balance between enforcement and transition. And while we have a timetable for Afghanistan we are not yet certain that that progress is irreversible. Closer to home, across Europe the major new threats we face, there are major new threats that we face, from terrorism to climate change, to nuclear proliferation, to cyber-attack, all of which will require new answers, new technologies, greater cooperation and bolder preventative action.

Defence is becoming more expensive, more complicated, more intricate and much more unpredictable. But we live in a global era, and there is no opt-out and in the UK, as across the rest of the world, we must come to a realisation that on defence there is absolutely no opt-out at all. The problems we face are shared and many of the solutions also need to be collective. The events that we have witnessed recently in the eurozone and in the EU have made us all aware of both our interdependence and of the unpredictability of a world in which the events in 2011 have made it almost impossible to plan with certainty what will happen in 2012.

Amidst this transformative security landscape there are, I want to argue today, two new issues facing Europe that which will shape defence policy profoundly: one is political will and the other is economic reality. Europe’s ability to protect the sovereignty of individual nations and our collective security, as well as promote and protect the values and interests that we hold dear, depend both on our commitment and our ability to act so that the challenges of faltering political will and challenging economic reality are threats to both that necessary commitment and that ability.

Today I want to argue that greater cooperation between European countries on defence can help overcome some of these challenges. I also want to offer – I hope would you accept – observations that are the aggregate or settled view of political thinking of those in the UK who are both instinctively and intellectually pro-European. As a former Europe Minister in the Labour government, that is the political terrain that I occupy.

Timothy Garton Ash at a dinner last night said that he wished to pose one provocative question, and he did. In my comments I am going to pose three questions: it is for you to decide whether they are provocative or not. The common threats that I have spoken about require common action and shared operations, which are increasingly commonplace as we know: European nations working together in the Balkans, in Chad, Afghanistan and around the world in EU, UN and NATO missions. We have joined objectives and standards, priorities and also interests, but there are three key political challenges that could undermine our ability to continue to maximise this approach.

The first is that the current political and economic turmoil in Europe will undermine calls for greater multilateralism in some populations. To argue for greater cooperation on defence at this moment is difficult but essential. The financial crisis has ushered in a protectionist sentiment that will shape national identities, not just economic policy, and this is happening at a time when nations are more reliant than ever before on each other for national security.

Secondly, many of our publics are wary and many of our publics are weary. There is a widespread public reticence towards international expeditionary action. European public opinion towards Libya demonstrated mixed and impatient reactions. No allied combat casualties and lack of collateral damage from what has been termed ‘a new model of intervention’ may help persuade some publics’ availability to act and the value of their doing so. But multilateral proactive action will be hampered by public scepticism and reserve arising from the recent experiences of overseas conflicts.

I worry that one consequence of Afghanistan combined with the legacy of Iraq will be to make a concept permanently unpopular idea with nations becoming increasingly ambivalent about acting on the responsibilities beyond their own borders. In such a state a state of ambivalence, we still believe in the same values, but we just may not so readily stand up for them. The principal danger would be that the drivers of potential conflict would proceed unabated. And we must, I believe, make the case, therefore, for the duty to act beyond our own borders. Making that case, we must be aware of false distinctions. I am aware of it particularly in the UK.

The current divide in the debate on defence that distinguishes between pro-Europeanism and Atlanticism is unsustainable and unsuited to modern times. For many on the Eurosceptic right of politics in the UK, Atlanticism has become synonymous with a self-defeating, virulent Euroscepticism that is bad for Britain. It is intellectually lazy to force our country into a binary choice of Europe or America. In truth, the UK will need both, if it is to be a nation that seeks to be, and Europe can be stronger through stronger ties of course also with the USA.

The third challenge is the recognition that NATO, more so than the EU, will be the forum through which military action is agreed and taken. But for that to be successful a greater contribution is needed from European nations. NATO is the key also to the continued support and engagement with the USA but this depends on NATO becoming more capable, more deployable, and more balanced. The Libya campaign demonstrated each of these factors. Despite the difficulties Libya is testament to NATO’s enduring relevance. The mission was swift and has so far been successful. The engagement of both UN and NATO in the Arab League and in particular other nations, such as Qatar was full. But it also demonstrated something else about the alliance: that just eight of the 20 members contributing is not enough.

So my first question of three is: how does the European end of NATO take a greater share of the burden? European governments have to be more honest with each other about their capacity. There are too many never to be used battle tanks, unusable fast jets and undeployable army conscripts. In 27 EU member states there are half a million more men and women in uniform than the USA, but the EU can deploy only a fraction of the capabilities that the USA can. And amongst all the provocative talk of the past of ‘coalitions of the willing’, infamously from George W. Bush, the active creation of ‘coalitions of the capable’ may in future be a bigger challenge. That is not sustainable if we want to project power in a world where it is shifting to emerging nations and developing economies. Many, particularly across the Atlantic, have come to the conclusion that the Transatlantic Alliance between the EU member states and the USA will be meaningful only if it is more reciprocal. That means greater burden sharing.

France, the UK and Germany account for 65 per cent of all defence expenditure in NATO Europe and 88 per cent of investment on research and technology. That also means greater deployability, I think, of assets in the future. The EU spends €200 billion on defence a year, more than any other country except the USA. We have two million Europeans in uniform but only 5 per cent are deployable at any one time. And yes, that also means European nations doing more to hit that NATO target on defence expenditure. But it is important to know that this debate is focusing on further cooperation as between European nations rather than the EU.

The EU has a crucial role to play in security policy in the civilian crisis management operations in some of the countries that I have already mentioned. The EU is involved alongside NATO and others in tackling piracy off Somalia. Yet, final decisions in the deployment of forces that are among the biggest possible decisions any government can take will remain the decision of governments in European capitals.

But in the face of an argument driven by politics of identity or political Euroscepticism, or political Euroseparatism, which is an increasing pulse and a stronger pulse in the UK, I believe, we can overcome much of the scepticism about wider and deeper European cooperation only if we confront it and if we show we have the means to respond effectively and flexibly to today’s threats at a time of austerity.

Let’s be clear. Some of the cuts to defence budgets may impact on what we can achieve overseas in the future. There are levels of cuts and I have argued at home in the UK that we believe the scale and pace of the cuts to our budgets in defence are nothing short of a strategic shrinkage by stealth.

And this is in the context of austerity across Europe. Spain has cut spending on defence materiel by more than 50% since 2008. Bulgarian armed forces will shrink by more than 20% by 2015. The Slovenian government has proposed a further 7% cut to the national defence budget. French efforts to ring-fence military funding are positive but the mid-term review may lead to reductions. German defence spending is on course to decline by 10% between 2008 and 2015.

In this context of falling investment, the notion that NATO-European nations will consistently fight alongside one another but build their armed forces in separation from one another needs to be reconsidered. In building our forces or dismantling capability greater European cooperation within NATO is essential. Defence procurement is critical, enabling us to maximise our ability to project force and to do so cost-effectively, supporting both the front line and the bottom line. There are many things that we can do there, and the European Defence Agency is an important step. But we believe that the cooperation of the procurement and an open market is the way that Europe can compete in a very expensive technology-driven activity. We also have to look at pooling force structures as well as cooperation and procurement. We can do better to cooperate on these structures. This does not take place, not nearly to the extent needed, which means we maximise the real potential for frontline benefits.

And there is excellent example in the Anglo-French model signed over the past year, which for many people is ushered in what many people are calling ‘une Entente frugale’. But it is a commitment to limited interoperability, joint purchasing and sharing of expertise and facilities. This should not be an isolated achievement. We hope that the Northern Group makes similar agreements emerge and other similar groupings can assemble to discuss and take forward this agenda. Where countries can and where it is in their mutual interests, they should work together. This is not about creating what many at home, now Eurosceptics, call ‘creating a Euro Army’ but it is about pursuing gains where they can be found on a case-by-case basis.

Very briefly the second questionis: how do we guarantee in the future, the correct balance of capability in a planned way rather than by accident, exploring how reductions in defence expenditure and resulting changes to force and equipment structures in European nations may be better coordinated? This will be controversial for some. But European nations in NATO not only have to work together to build coalitions, as in Libya, but we must also coordinate much more effectively on defence cuts in order to prevent serious gaps in military capabilities. I observe the cuts in other countries rather than criticise them. But in light of the scale of the change taking place it is important that we make efforts to avoid duplication as well as minimise the depth of capability shortfalls. If we accept that we will be operating in partnerships more regularly, capability reduction should be coordinated with a view to having a balanced cross-alliance-equipment programme. For example, in Austria thousands of weapon systems are being phased-out, other countries are getting out of the submarine business and still others are mothballing their capability on tanks.

But in this context that is not all just about defence. Often the most effective defence policy is not about military hardware or a nation’s forces or its military strategy. It can be a warrior-class-international-development policy of the type that the EU has done so much on: investment in education, democratic reform and viable economies can hinder the spread of conflict. And the careful prevention of development policy can be so much better than the painful cure of military action.

Turning to the third of my questions, which is the one that occupies me most: as we look ahead towards the military draw-down in Afghanistan and the end of combat rule at the end of 2014, there are the lessons and the consequences of Afghanistan to consider. When we talk about Afghanistan, ‘lessons’ and ‘consequences’ are different things. But my third question is this: how in European populations, European governments and European capitals do we prevent 1.5 unpopular wars creating a permanently unpopular concept? And what I mean by that is that Iraq is undoubtedly unpopular, Afghanistan is at least partially unpopular – how do we prevent that contaminating the debate in future? On Libya, in the UK, on the UK government's decision with Labour support, the opposition in the country to what was happening and the decision to deploy was broad, worryingly broad but thankfully shallow.

But I think, in the context of Afghanistan we are talking about winning the hearts of Afghan public. In the context of the Arab spring we are talking about winning the minds of the Arab street. But our prerequisite is convincing both the logic and the emotion in Europe in our own European populations first. This argument is in the balance. I believe in a politics of responsibility beyond our own borders, beyond the borders of our own continent. But because of a combination of genuine concern about military action of the recent past and the understandable hesitation at a time of austerity, it will lead to publics and public opinion preventing good politicians of both the centre left and the centre right from taking action. So I believe, finally, that the stakes are high on this. Time is short and we can no longer ignore the sentiment of the public but we have to engage on a way that is positive about a role in the world, has a clear vision of European states’ rule in the world, and in a way that honors the public sentiment and takes them with us.