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Interview: European Parliament's Van Orden on EU defense plans weakening NATO

March 20, 2017 (Photo Credit: Courtesy European Parliament)
Geoffrey Van Orden, MBE, is a vice chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament, to which he was first elected in 1999. A former British army officer, he views the formation of an EU-owned defense organization with skepticism, calling recent considerations to that effect a “distraction” that could weaken NATO.

You have been particularly vocal on the EU not ‘meddling in defence.’ You say the EU is trying to set up its own army separate from NATO and that this has dangerous consequences. Can you explain your position here? 

The threats faced by the Western democracies is increasing and wide-ranging. Europe’s primary strategic concern should be to ensure that the United States remains fully committed to its security, not to establish separate defence structures which deliberately exclude the United States. This plays into the hands of those that wish to see Europe separated from its transatlantic allies. Of course, the European nations need to reassure the USA by pulling their weight, spending more on their defence capabilities, and showing willingness to engage in allied combat operations. The NATO obligation that each NATO ally should spend 2 percent of its GDP on defence is a useful minimum benchmark. EU political ambitions in the defence field are a distraction from the need to revitalise NATO and make the alliance relevant to a full range of security threats — not just territorial defence but meeting the challenge of ISIS and the demands of cyber warfare.

The EU should stop being distracted by its own institutional ambitions and focus on encouraging its individual members to invest more in their national defence capabilities, in order to produce state-of-the-art, deployable and sustainable military forces available to NATO as the primary instrument for defence of the West.

How worrying is the EU’s apparent quest for an autonomous military capability? 

The EU is engaged in self-promotion and primarily motivated by its own institutional ambitions, not in creating effective additional military capability. It is extremely worrying. It has no credibility. Unlike the EU, NATO is an inter-governmental organisation, it does not undermine national sovereignty, and above all it has the enormous advantage of binding the US to the security of Europe. That is the great combined power that our potential enemies take seriously. Russia would be delighted if Europe were to develop its so-called “strategic autonomy,” separated from the United States.

It is a dangerous fallacy for the EU to imagine that it can “intervene across the whole spectrum of crisis management” — that includes war-fighting by the way — and that the EU should aim for a “common defence.” This immediately casts doubt on the continued relevance of NATO. How on earth would the EU protect even its non-NATO members — do we seriously imagine that the Swedes and Finns would feel comfortable with promises from President Juncker? That is why the so-called “military neutrals” have the closest possible partnership with NATO short of actual membership.
Have you had a dialogue with the EU Military Committee’s strategy on defence in conjunction with NATO? 

The EU Military Committee is merely a pale imitation of the NATO Military Committee, which I know well. There is no real justification for the existence of the duplicative EU body — more or less the same military chiefs meeting in the same city to discuss the same range of crises, but without the most important ally.

You have said NATO has not reformed to meet the threat of Islamist terrorism and that its members have relied too heavily on America and were not paying their share. Can you explain this? What can be done to encourage more NATO members to meet the 2 percent defence spending target? 

For a long time I have said that NATO needs to be revitalised. Given the seriousness of the security threat that we face, and the changes in its nature, NATO needs to adapt — it must have a credible and sustainable war-fighting capability for its core task of territorial defence and address the new challenges. This needs whole-hearted commitment by both North American and European allies. For too long, many European countries have not pulled their weight and have taken the U.S. for granted. The problems go deep into our societies where a generation or more has little understanding of the need for armed forces and for the NATO alliance. More attention needs to be given to public information to win support for increases in defence spending — otherwise the anarchists and Leftists and their fellow travellers and apologists are given a clear space to spread their disinformation.

What do you see as NATO’s current weaknesses and what is the linkage between NATO’s perceived failure to adapt and the EU’s defence ambitions? 

See above. We must also recognise that it is national governments that are represented in NATO and many of those same governments have been supportive of EU ambitions. NATO is a serious, hard-headed institution but it has been affected by intrusion of EU-think.

How serious is the possibility of Russian interference in the general elections this year in France and Germany as it has been accused of doing in last year’s US elections? 

We know that prominent political parties in both countries have received support from Moscow and have become NATO-averse while seeing merit in Mr Putin. At the same time, I have no doubt that Moscow will use all the instruments at its disposal to spread disinformation and to promote stories that assist its preferred parties. 

On 30 November 2016, the European Commission tabled its eagerly awaited European Defence Action Plan (EDAP), which aims to boost collaboration on defence capability and support the European defence industry. You have said you have “fundamental” problems with this. Why?

I have a fundamental problem with the whole concept of the Action Plan. The institutions consistently state that, in accordance with the Treaties, defence is a Member State competence, and yet at every turn we find them trying to “communitarise” defence. This Action Plan is a clear example of this competency creep.

Besides all the other flaws with the Action Plan, where is the money going to come from? There will be a big hole in the EU budget when the UK leaves. And the EU faces  many other demands for additional spending — the refugee crisis, for example.

While I remain a strong supporter of our defence industries — in the UK, for example, they are major strategic contributors, hi-tech innovators and employers — I do not believe that European interference is what is required to assist them. The key to enhancing the industry is an increase in defence spending by Member States — 2 percent of GDP is a minimum — as well as ensuring that our defence industries link up with the very best global partners.

Do you think the EU is trying to duplicate NATO’s command structure? Do you agree that Europe needs to speed up the building of a Defence Union and invest more in its common border and coast guards?

The EU is attempting to duplicate the NATO command structure, it is attempting to duplicate all aspects of NATO. I do not agree that Europe needs to speed up the building of a Defence Union. There is no need for the EU to be involved in creating artificial defence ties — bilateral agreements in the field of defence have existed long before the EU. There is no evidence that the intervention of the institutions of the EU in defence  — creating more HQs, manipulating  the statistics — will somehow produce more defence potency. It is additional military capability and political will that counts. Many European countries see the EU option as an excuse to do less. Their defence budgets have declined and they lack the political will for robust military operations. And there is no evidence that the involvement of the EU will produce greater defence technological capability. There have been many collaborative defence projects involving several European partners – Jaguar, Tornado and Typhoon aircraft and the Meteor missile, for example — without the EU.

There should be one place where the Western democracies discuss and agree their response to crises and that should be NATO. The idea that those European NATO allies that are also EU members — 22 out of 28 — should meet separately and arrive at some different conclusion plays into the hands of our potential enemies whose greatest wish is to separate the Europeans from America. Of course, there are some crises where the Europeans have a predominant interest. They should therefore bear the first responsibility but with the full support and involvement of the United States as appropriate. This does not require separate structures. And by the way, multinational military units are not some EU invention — from the start they were a feature of NATO. 
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