Wednesday 23 October 2019

Dan O'Brien: 'In unstable times, greater EU defence co-operation is logical - which will give Ireland a decision to make'

'Despite its importance to European security and the transatlantic relationship, (Donald) Trump (pictured) has repeatedly questioned the value of Nato and constantly claimed that European countries are ripping off Americans by not spending as much on defence as they have committed to doing.' Photo: AP
'Despite its importance to European security and the transatlantic relationship, (Donald) Trump (pictured) has repeatedly questioned the value of Nato and constantly claimed that European countries are ripping off Americans by not spending as much on defence as they have committed to doing.' Photo: AP
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Does it make sense for countries to join defensive alliances with their like-minded peers? With quite a bit of talk about a "European army" during the ongoing European Parliament election campaign, this question is on the agenda. It could well move up the agenda soon.

In most areas in which EU countries co-operate, or could potentially co-operate, there is not much appetite among the 28 members for "more Europe". Security and defence is one of the exceptions. There is both an appetite among EU countries to do more together and a powerful logic to do so.

Three major developments over the past five years have made more European co-operation in security and defence more likely.

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The election of Donald Trump as US president in 2016 was one of these developments. From the 1940s, the US underpinned peace and democracy in Europe.

Though there were big transatlantic differences - from the Vietnam war in the 1960s, to American nuclear missile deployment in the 1980s, to the Iraq invasion in the 2000s - the US was Europe's dependable and indispensable ally. Nato, which recently celebrated its 70th birthday, was the institutional core of Euro-American ties.

Despite its importance to European security and the transatlantic relationship, Trump has repeatedly questioned the value of Nato and constantly claimed that European countries are ripping off Americans by not spending as much on defence as they have committed to doing.

Although there is some truth to the latter claim, the threatening manner in which Trump makes the claim, along with his behaviour and temperament more generally, make him anything but a dependable ally, least of all in something as vital as national security. Europeans increasingly see the danger of being dependent on a country led by this man.

The second big change in the European security and defence environment is Brexit. Britain has traditionally been the strongest voice in the EU against the bloc developing a defensive dimension. London believed that such a move would undermine Nato and weaken links with the US. As Britain - seemingly - walks away from the decision-making tables in Brussels, the most influential opponent of giving the EU a greater role in hard security matters doesn't count anymore.

But the biggest driver of closer European security co-operation is not an undependable US or an irrelevant UK, but a revanchist Russia. Since Vladimir Putin took power in that country two decades ago, its relations with democratic Europe have deteriorated almost continuously.

While this is not entirely Russia's fault, the lion's share of the blame lies with its increasingly autocratic regime and its reversion to the behaviour of another era.

Russia's invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014 and its ongoing proxy war in the east of that country have profoundly changed how most EU countries which have historical experience of its aggression view the threat posed by Putin's regime.

These include many small countries like Ireland. Sweden is one such country. Such is the concern in that country that last year its (social democrat) government sent a 20-page pamphlet to every household with instructions on what to do in the event of a military invasion.

The growing threat posed by Russia, the unreliability of the US under Trump (his admiration of Putin only deepens European insecurities) and the UK's departure from the EU are all factors in more countries warming to the idea of co-operating on security and defence within the continent's political union.

Despite sharing an interest with small, vulnerable states (which have shown a lot of solidarity on Brexit), there is little appetite in Ireland for co-operation in this field. We are as far from Russia as any EU country and have a long history of free-riding on our neighbours for security. The question some people pose is: why join in if you can get the benefits without joining?

For others, including Sinn Féin and some Independent MEPs, opposition to more EU security co-operation is partly motivated by a curious sympathy towards Russia.

In the wake of the invasion of Crimea, the European Parliament voted in favour of a resolution condemning the invasion and the human rights abuses that followed. Sinn Féin, along with Nigel Farage's Ukip and Marine Le Pen's National Front, did not vote in favour of the motion.

Sinn Féin deflected from Russia's invasion, stating that the motion "completely ignores any responsibility of the EU for its role in the development of this conflict". Earlier this year, the party's Dublin MEP Lynn Boylan claimed the EU was "overly confrontational" towards the huge dictatorship to its east.

This sympathy is curious not only because Russia has a long history as an imperial power and occupier of its smaller neighbours, in both the Tsarist and Soviet eras, but because Putin in a man of the hard right, while Sinn Féin positions itself well to the left.

Putin's Russia is an uber-capitalist economy. There is little in the way of a welfare safety net - it is a sink-or-swim society. Redistribution is minimal by standards of democratic Europe, which is one reason why income inequality is so high. When it comes to wealth inequality, Russia is off the charts, with oligarchs controlling the country's huge natural resources, including oil and gas reserves.

Russia is also a far more militarised society than the European democracies. It has almost 1.5 million armed forces personnel, three times more than Germany and France combined.

Faced with a powerful and belligerent autocracy which has invaded its neighbours (Russian also invaded Georgia in the summer of 2008), democratic Europe sees that it is threatened.

Without the US to depend on, pooling resources and co-operating more is the rational response, both because there is strength in numbers and because it saves money by avoiding duplication of effort.

In the near future our fellow EU members may decide that in the era of Putin and Trump they have no choice but to work more closely together on security and defence. Ireland will then face the choice: opting out and continuing our long-standing position of free-riding; or opting in and behaving like a nation of grown-ups which takes its own security seriously.

Irish Independent

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