Death of an institution. The end for Western European Union, a future for European defence
On 31 March 2010 the ten Member States of Western European Union (WEU) announced that the last organs, staffs and activities of that institution would be laid to rest by 30 June 2011. Having resiled from the Modified Brussels Treaty (MBT) of 1954 which created WEU as a successor to the Western Union of 1948, these nations are now working to dispose of the staff, premises and archives at WEU’s Brussels offices and its Parliamentary Assembly in Paris. Little public interest has been shown in these moves, perhaps because WEU’s operational and political work had already been taken over by the European Union (EU), in the frame of its new European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), at the end of 1999. Why get rid of WEU’s last vestiges precisely now? This study addresses the question, and seeks to assess WEU’s achievements and legacies by reviewing its 57-year career from cradle to grave. Modest though WEU’s own role may have been, it has been intimately linked with one of the great policy challenges of the post-war world: the search for a distinct and effective form of ‘European defence’. The original Brussels Treaty of 1948, creating a permanent guaranteed defence relationship between the UK, France and the Benelux countries, was a vital step towards the realization of the North Atlantic Alliance. When the attempt to create an even more deeply integrated European Defence Community including Germany broke down in 1954, WEU was created as a self-confessed pis aller. Its treaty, the MBT, still contained absolute mutual guarantees but from the start WEU left the operative work of defence to NATO. It fulfilled useful tasks in cementing the post-war order, but then sank into slumber until the mid-1980s. When first reawakened, it became a talking-shop for a core group of West Europeans, helping them cope with the trans-Atlantic strains of the time and developing some sense of Europe’s shared and distinct security interests. During the 1990s, WEU had to reinvent itself in face of demands for post-Cold War enlargement and new-style crisis management operations. It was further steered by the evolving needs of the EU and NATO, for whom it came to serve as intermediary. Its low profile and flexibility let it bring the enlargement candidates and European non-Allies, as well as non-EU members of NATO, closely into its work from an early date. It invented a definition (‘Petersberg formula’) for crisis management tasks that could realistically be carried out by Europeans alone; and it built intricate partnerships with both NATO and the EU that in theory allowed NATO’s military assets to be borrowed for missions under an EU political lead. However, the only operations actually launched under a WEU flag were loosely coordinated naval ones, and police and other civilian actions. WEU never enjoyed the political status or trust in capitals to be seriously considered for more demanding military tasks, even when European coalitions were in the lead. Frustration with this situation, and with the weak show made by European capabilities under a NATO flag, drove Britain and France in 1998 to propose giving the EU its own military arm. The formula adopted for this in Helsinki at end-1999 limited EU actions to the ‘Petersberg’ crisis management and humanitarian spectrum, thus avoiding a direct clash with NATO and allowing the EU’s non-Allied members to participate fully. The non-EU European Allies, however, lost status compared with WEU and this led to Turkish blocking tactics for the first years of ESDP, delaying the first ESDP operations (in Former Yugoslavia) to 2003. Nevertheless the bulk of WEU’s functions were transferred to EU equivalents, leaving a residual secretariat to guard the MBT. The WEU Institute for Security Studies and Satellite Centre became EU agencies and a few years later, the two WEU-linked armament cooperation bodies WEAG and WEAO were superseded by the EU’s European Defence Agency. Economy-minded nations were pondering a final close-down of WEU as early as 2004, but the decisive move came in February 2010 following entry into force of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. This text contains (Article 42.7) a pledge by all 27 EU members to assist each other against military attack, but – contrasting with the MBT’s clarity – the language is heavily qualified by references to NATO’s primacy and respect for the non-Allies’ status. Prompted by the UK with arguments for cost-saving, the WEU powers nevertheless agreed in March 2010 that this development made the MBT redundant. Behind their decision seems to lie an acceptance that the European defence idea can be pushed no further in the EU framework, at least for the foreseeable future. NATO still plays the beau rôle in ‘hard’ peace missions as well as territorial defence, and commands more attention even from the French military than a European Union handicapped by German (and other) misgivings. The Franco-British defence treaty of November 2010 signals a certain impatience with all institutional constraints, as well as the severity of post-2008 budget pressures. An initial post mortem on WEU’s achievements could give credit for its role in early post-war consolidation; for its political services both to a European security identity and to trans-Atlantic harmony from the 80s onwards; and its help in cementing common approaches especially to crisis management missions across the wider Europe. Its ‘Petersberg’ formula has stood the test of time and remains at the heart of EU Treaty provisions on practical defence cooperation. The WEU Institute and Satcen have discovered wider horizons under EU ownership, while WEAO in particular showed a way forward in the still problematic field of defence industrial collaboration. In the military and operational sphere WEU’s acquis was drawn upon extensively and usefully, where appropriate, during ESDP’s formative period, though for obvious reasons this was not highlighted at the time. This acquis included planning in the operational, logistic, command and control, communications and force generation fields; the construction of intelligence and situational awareness capabilities; the design of crisis management, exercise and training procedures; and the experience of mounting the first (modest) Petersberg-style operation – MAPE in Albania.
The EU has proved unable to absorb, let alone improve upon, three things from WEU’s legacy: the true collective defence guarantees of the MBT, the openness to Turkey and other non-EU Allies, and the maintenance of a specialized parliamentary assembly for defence and security (which will be replaced, at best, by a much weaker inter-parliamentary network). In all other respects European defence and security cooperation has clearly fared much better under the EU’s wing than it ever could in WEU, producing more than 20 actual crisis operations for a start. If the EU now finds itself unable to move further, there are at least two possible hopeful readings of the post-WEU situation. One is that the EU and its members will be spurred to greater and more integrated defence efforts by some future set of challenges, distinct from 20th-century territorial warfare. The other reading is that the EU’s nature, values, longer-term survival and true security potential are better served without a ‘hard’ military personality. The kind of European defence that WEU and its Treaty stood for has proved elusive after nearly 60 years of effort: could it also be, in the final analysis, unnecessary and undesirable?
(Photo credit: Leo Reynolds, Flickr)