EU debate: A European Air Force?

Published: 4th Apr 2014

"Baroness Cathy Ashton, the British Commissioner, is pushing very hard for a European Air Force and for a series of drones [...] Now it is a European Union, that wants an air force, an army, a Navy, and wants to militarily intervene".

Nigel Farage, 'The European Union: In or Out' BBC debate, 2 April 2014

"The idea that there is going to be a European Air Force, a European Army, is simply not true".

Nick Clegg, 'The European Union: In or Out' BBC debate, 2 April 2014

One of the bigger clashes of Wednesday night's debate was the suggestion that the EU are planning to expand their military capabilities through a European air force and army.

The claim relates back to an EU policy document on defence published last July and discussed at an EU Council meeting in December 2013. In a speech at the meeting, David Cameron said the Council had "removed references to Europe's armed forces" from the proposals - suggesting it was once a possibility - but the European External Action Service (the EU's foreign affairs body) told us the proposals had always related to civilian capabilities only.

Whether or not the proposals were misinterpreted, the Council meeting concluded that all military capabilities would remain owned and operated by Member States. The European External Action Service (EEAS) also told us the EU has no competence (powers given by treaties) in military matters, so we shouldn't be expecting an EU air force or army any time soon.

A misunderstood policy?

The European Commission report on 'A New Deal for European Defence', put together an action plan for building the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy.

One of the actions proposed in the document, was the following:

"The Commission will work with the EEAS on a joint assessment of dual-use capability needs for EU security and defence policies. On the basis of this assessment, it will come up with a proposal for which capability needs, if any, could best be fulfilled by assets directly purchased, owned and operated by the Union."

The report also discussed the potential to support the integration of civil Remotely Piloted Air System (RPAS) - otherwise known as drones - into the European airspace.

The plans appeared in a Daily Telegraph article at the time as EU plans to "own and operate spy drones and an air force".

In August 2013, the Ministry of Defence expressed concerns about the proposals, again interpreting them as plans for EU-owned military capabilities:

"While the exact scope of these proposals remains unclear, the Government has made it clear to the Commission that we would oppose any measures by the EU to develop and, of more concern, to own high-end military or dual-use capabilities such as Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS), high-resolution satellite imagery or military satellite communication equipment;"

But, the EEAS (the body which supports Baroness Ashton in her role as High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) told us the report was referring to capabilities of a civilian nature, such as border monitoring by the European border agency Frontex. They also said that the European Commission has no competence in military matters and that this was repeatedly made clear by the Commission.

So it seems the proposals were misinterpreted.

The concerns continued at the Council meeting, where David Cameron made clear that he was against any plans along these lines, stating:

"Defence issues, ultimately about war and peace and a nation's armed forces, must be driven by nations themselves on a voluntary basis, according to their own priorities and needs, not by some Brussels diktat about grand union ambitions. The European Union's principle focus should be on boosting economic growth and creating jobs, not fantasising about getting its own army or defence equipment.

"Now the European Commission's proposal on defence, published in July, explicitly suggested EU kit. They called for work on, and I quote, 'EU owned dual use capabilities and a proposal to explore how capability needs could best be fulfilled by assets directly purchased, owned and operated by the Union.' It was important for national leaders to be clear on this issue. Co-operation between nation states, yes. EU assets and EU headquarters, no. And I have made sure this is clear in the conclusions that we've agreed today. [..] The European Council position is clear: it is nations, not EU institutions, that are in the driving seat of defence and that is the way it should always stay."

Subsequently, the conclusions of the Council meeting were that:

"The European Council remains committed to delivering key capabilities and addressing critical shortfalls through concrete projects by Member States, supported by the European Defence Agency. Bearing in mind that the capabilities are owned and operated by the Member States,".

So, there are no plans that we know of for a European army or air force forthcoming.


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