Select Committee on Defence Third Report


NATO and the WEU

62. In this 50th anniversary year, NATO has continued to overshadow its older but much less well-known sibling, the Western European Union. This alliance, which celebrated its own 50th anniversary with much less razzamatazz last April, was founded on the Brussels Treaty of 1948.[129] It was rapidly displaced from the centre of attention in the family of western security organisations by the more assertive and potent new arrival, NATO. During the Cold War, the WEU almost disappeared from view and was widely believed to be defunct. In their Report of 1996, our predecessors commented that—

... the WEU's role in collective defence ... is of no continuing significance, provided that NATO membership continues to be a prerequisite for membership of the WEU.[130]

And the Secretary General of the WEU noted in a recent speech that—

One of the many disobliging things that has been said about WEU is that it has a great future behind it.[131]

Had France remained in NATO's Integrated Military Structure, the WEU probably would have disappeared. There were a number of attempts to revitalise it (notably in the mid 1980s), but these were undertaken as often as a diversionary tactic as with a serious purpose of reform.

63. Since the end of the Cold War, attempts to reinvigorate the WEU have been more purposeful. [132] The European Union's 1991 Maastricht Treaty included agreement on the development of a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP)—

... including the eventual framing of a common defence policy which might in time lead to a common defence.

It also included reference to the WEU as an integral part of the development of the European Union created by the Treaty and requested the WEU to elaborate and implement decisions and actions of the European Union which had defence implications. In 1992, the 'Petersberg tasks' of humanitarian and rescue missions, peacekeeping, peacemaking and crisis management were defined as appropriate missions for the WEU. In January 1994, NATO heads of state announced that they stood ready to make collective assets of the Alliance available, on the basis of consultations in the North Atlantic Council, for WEU operations undertaken by the European Allies in pursuit of their Common Foreign and Security Policy.[133] The Declaration of the 1996 Berlin NATO Summit[134] moved towards a consensus on the development of a European Security and Defence Identity (ESDI), defined by a concept of 'separable but not separate capabilities', which could be used by the European Allies in pursuit of the Petersberg tasks, using NATO assets under the political control of the WEU. However, although the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy pillar had been established under the Maastricht Treaty in 1991, the UK continued to insist that the European defence capability, as embodied institutionally in the WEU, should not be formally incorporated into the EU, but should remain poised between NATO and the EU. At the Amsterdam Summit the European Union reaffirmed the formula first adopted at Maastricht but the Amsterdam Treaty revised the Maastricht Treaty to provide for the closer institutional relationship between the WEU and the EU. Reports of negotiations on the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997 emphasised the UK's resistance to the incorporation of a 'common defence'. The Prime Minister told the House in his statement on the Amsterdam Summit that—

... while retaining our veto, we have taken steps to improve the effectiveness of foreign policy co-operation with better planning and coordination. That is an important British interest, but getting Europe's voice heard more clearly in the world will not be achieved through merging the European Union and the Western European Union or developing an unrealistic common defence policy. We therefore resisted unacceptable proposals from others. Instead, we argued for—and won—the explicit recognition, written into the treaty for the first time, that NATO is the foundation of our and other allies' common defence...[135]

In the course of our enquiry into the government's Strategic Defence Review last year, Ministers told us—

... the Treaty of Amsterdam was a defining moment when it came to the Western European Union ... whilst it allows the European Union to engage in dialogue with the WEU, it certainly does not see it within the EU's capacity to make political decisions that would command the WEU ...[136]

and that—

A certain line was drawn under [the ESDI] at the Amsterdam Summit, largely at British instigation, by preventing the merger of the WEU and the EU.[137]

We ourselves noted in that Report that while the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy had made limited but significant progress in the previous five years, the rate of development of ESDI within NATO had distinctly slowed,[138] and that we found that the SDR—

... had done nothing to clarify or advance the development of the European Security and Defence Identity.[139]

64. Until recently, therefore, ESDI was a generally ambiguous concept, representing for some the attempt to build a European defence capability separate from NATO, associated in ways still to be determined, with the European Union; for others, it was an attempt to increase the capabilities of the Europeans within NATO, precisely to strengthen the political and military fabric of the Alliance. In its response to the Committee's SDR report the government stated its belief that—

... in order to be effective, CFSP needs to be underpinned by a credible military capability which can act in circumstances when the United States chooses not to be fully engaged. We have no pre-conceived ideas about how best to achieve this ... It is partly a question of European political will and leadership, supported by better CFSP mechanisms, but also a matter of European countries taking the necessary practical steps to develop further the means to carry out a broad range of European-only operations, and having an effective mechanism for using them ... Improving European military capabilities and cooperation in this way will help to strengthen NATO. We do not want to do anything to undermine the Alliance or to attempt to duplicate its structures. Nor do we envisage in any way removing defence from the control of national governments or creating some form of standing European army. Our aim is to encourage our European Partners to continue the development of their armed forces to meet the kind of challenges which are likely in the future, and to consider with us ways in which European cooperation can be improved, so that a credible European defence identity can be created.[140]

But in a speech in May 1998 the NATO Secretary General stated that the development of an ESDI within NATO would offer—

... the broadest possible menu of military options for managing future crises,

and would make—

... a major contribution to a more mature and balanced transatlantic relationship.[141]

There has also been a sudden and dramatic shift in the UK government's position since last summer. The Prime Minister took most observers by surprise by his initiative at the informal EU Summit at Portschäch in October 1998 to move the development of ESDI up the EU agenda. The government has made a number of statements on how it sees the role of the UK in addressing the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union, and the attendant issue of the future role of the Western European Union, and it is clear that the role of the EU in defence and security issues is evolving at least as quickly as NATO itself. For example, in its memorandum to this inquiry, the MoD told us—

The Government believes that the European Union needs a more unified and influential voice in world affairs, articulated with greater speed and coherence through the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), and that the development of the security and defence dimension would reinforce its capacity and standing ... The Government believes that the capacity for Europeans to act together where the United States and the Alliance as a whole are not engaged should be enhanced, building on the existing European Security and Defence Identity arrangements.[142]

65. In evidence to this inquiry the Secretary of State told us that the government has "looked with a new focus at the way in which Europe handles itself" for two main reasons: first because the EU has decided[143] to appoint a High Representative for CFSP matters which will have the effect of "sharpening" and "personalising" the EU's impact on foreign and security policy (and perhaps providing an answer to Henry Kissinger's famous question, "If I want to talk to Europe, who do I call?"); secondly, because the present Kosovo crisis had brought us "face to face with [a] credibility gap and the Prime Minister believed it was right we should start focussing attention on that..."[144]

66. The unheralded St Malo agreement between France and the UK announced following a bilateral summit in December 1998[145] was characterised by former US NATO Ambassador Robert Hunter as 'short on substance but long on political significance';[146] but the Minister of State at the FCO told the Committee that—

... the process begun at St Malo has already led to considerable practical working together between the British and the French, but since then it has also engaged others, the Germans specifically, who are very important at the moment because of their joint chairmanship of both the WEU and ... the Presidency of the European Union,[147]

although Franco-British military cooperation, it should be noted, has long been underway and arguably was a precondition for the St Malo accord. It was a process, the Minister said, to deliver capacity at the sharp end rather than to engage in a debate about the future of institutions.[148] The Secretary General of the WEU, in his speech to the 50th Anniversary Conference, described the work that the WEU had been doing since the end of the Cold War to make the ESDI a reality, and noted this tone of impatience with institutional debate—

Your Prime Minister and other European leaders have expressed their exasperation with the size of the European mouse that has come out of all these mountains. They want to know why Europe's political voice is still so slow to speak and so confused when it does, and why Europe's mailed fist is not stronger to strike after all the resources we have put into it.[149]

67. Though these attitudes are very clearly stated, they still leave open the question of the future of the WEU, and the Petersberg tasks that the WEU is mandated to perform. It is possible that the new Strategic Concept will outline similar tasks as core functions of NATO, and we would certainly expect it to do so. This would have the effect of undermining both the Petersberg Declaration and further sidelining the WEU itself. The Secretary of State for Defence acknowledged that, "there is a question mark as to what the role of the WEU should be".[150] Three alternatives were possible, he told us; to merge the WEU into the EU, to strengthen the WEU so that it is capable of performing properly the roles it has already taken on, or to devolve its political roles to the EU and its military roles to an ESDI component within NATO.[151] These are the three areas on which eventually decisions will have to be made.

68. In doing so, it will be vital to avoid three crucial problems that the US Secretary of State has pointed to, and which have been reiterated and reinforced by the WEU Secretary General.[152] In formulating the arrangements for a strengthened ESDI, there must be no decoupling of the transatlantic alliance which would alienate our North American Allies. There must be no duplication of NATO resources. And there must be no discrimination amongst the European countries on the basis of their differing relationships with the EU and the Alliance. We discuss these problems further below.

129  See Appendix 2 Back

130  Fourth Report, Session 1995-96, Western European Union, HC 105, para 11 Back

131  Dr José Cutilero, speaking at the RUSI, 10 March 1999 Back

132  ibid Back

133  Declaration of the Brussels Summit Back

134  See Appendix 3 Back

135  HC Deb, 18 June 1997, c314 Back

136  HC (1997-98) 138-III, Q 2881 Back

137  HC (1997-98) 138-III, Q 1630 Back

138  Eighth Report, Session 1997-98, op cit, para 137 Back

139  ibid, para 140 Back

140  Sixth Special Report, Session 1997-98, op cit, para 18 Back

141  Speech to the WEU Colloquy, Madrid, 4 May 1998 Back

142  Ev p 131 Back

143  At the Amsterdam Summit Back

144  Q 318 Back

145  Ev p 132 Back

146  Quoted in Jane's Defence Weekly, 31(9) 3 March 1999, p. 22 Back

147  Q 317 Back

148  Q 323 Back

149  Speech at the Royal United Services Institute 10 March 1999 Back

150  Q 323 Back

151  In each of these cases, many special arrangements would be required to cater for the needs of non-EU NATO countries and European non-aligned states. Back

152  Speech at the Royal United Services Institute, 9 March 1999 Back

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Prepared 13 April 1999