UK conservatives wary of EU defence cooperation


Britain’s opposition Conservatives say they will closely examine whether Britain should stay in the European Defence Agency, set up to promote European defence cooperation, if they win an election due by June.

Liam Fox, defence spokesman of the centre-right party which is favourite to win the election, said America would remain Britain’s leading global strategic partner under a Conservative government and NATO its preferred security alliance, Reuters reports.

The Conservatives are sceptical of greater European integration and party leader David Cameron has said his party would seek to claw back some powers from Brussels, if elected. The Conservatives, in opposition since 1997, had had no say in moves towards greater EU defence integration, Fox said.
“We will look at provisions like permanent structured cooperation and the European Defence Agency (EDA) closely if we form the next government, to determine if we see any value in Britain’s participation,” he said in a speech at the Politeia thinktank in London. A party source said a Conservative government could decide to leave the EDA, although it could stay in if it concluded there was value in procuring equipment through it.

The EDA was set up in 2004 to develop European military capabilities and armament cooperation. Permanent structured cooperation, envisaged by the EU’s new Lisbon treaty, would allow a hard core of EU nations to push ahead with military integration.

Britain’s next government will face pressure to cut defence spending as a way to rein in a ballooning government deficit. It will be difficult at a time when it has 9500 troops in Afghanistan and is committed to several major armament projects.

Briton Catherine Ashton, the EU’s new foreign policy chief, heads the EDA as well as being vice-president of what Fox termed the “supranational” European Commission, the EU executive. “This blurs the line between what is supranational and what is intergovernmental inside EU defence planning and it is something we have always opposed. This Commission foothold in the EDA will present problems for a future Conservative government,” he said.

Fox said Britain should look again at some of its EU defence commitments to see if they were practical. “Currently Britain has 12 500 troops, 18 warships, and 73 combat aircraft earmarked for the, admittedly fantasy, 60 000 strong force set out in the Helsinki Headline Goal,” he said, referring to a target set by EU leaders. “We have provided an … EU Battlegroup totalling 1500 troops on standby on three separate occasions,” he said.
“Are either of these commitments realistic in this era of overstretch and high operational tempo?” he said. Any EU military capability must supplement and not supplant national defence and NATO, Fox said. But he said a Conservative government would aim to strengthen bilateral defence relations with key European partners, such as France.

He said he would like to see even more cooperation with France on cyber-security, space security, joint training, nuclear proliferation and NATO reform. NATO reform would be a key strategic priority for a Conservative government, he said.