A union of 27 member-states is large and unwieldy. So it is not surprising that sub-groups - formal and informal- are playing a bigger role in managing what the EU does. The Euro Group is emerging as an important institution in its own right, with its own summits. The treaties’ provisions on ’enhanced co-operation’, hitherto dormant, have recently been used to allow avant-garde groups on divorce law and patents. Informal groups are increasingly active in foreign policy - such as France and Belgium on Cote d’Ivoire, and Germany and Poland on Belarus.
Decisions on foreign and defence policy require unanimity, which is why the EU reacted slowly to the uprisings in North Africa. Smaller groups of member-states can move quickly, as Britain and France did when Colonel Gadaffi started to get the upper hand against the Libyan rebels : they persuaded a reluctant US and then the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to back military action to protect civilians. Germany’s decision to abstain on the UNSC resolution - the only Western country that lined up with China and Russia, rather than Britain, France and the US - damaged the EU’s credibility but did not prevent a coalition of the willing acting. Meanwhile, all 27 member-states agreed to provide humanitarian assistance and economic aid to Libya and to impose sanctions on the Gadaffi regime.
The disadvantages of ad hoc crisis management were evident in the confusion that ensued over the command of the Libya operation. The US wanted to transfer command to NATO, but neither Turkey nor France wanted that alliance to have political control. And some EU countries outside the ad hoc coalition spoke against it : Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov claimed that the Libya campaign was all about "oil and the future exploitation of Libyan oil".
The Libyan operation has shown that the US now expects Europe to look after its own backyard. The Europeans should be better prepared for the next time that they have to manage a military operation without NATO’s full involvement. The EU has a track record of running policing, peacekeeping and rule-of-law operations in many parts of the world. But it will never run a serious combat mission when all 27 are in charge. Provisions in the Lisbon treaty allows for ’permanent structured co-operation’, the creation of a sub-group of militarily capable countries. But EU governments have not wanted to implement these provisions, because they are legally complex and do not define the entry criteria ; governments disagree on what the criteria should be.
So Britain and France should establish a different sort of avant-garde, to provide Europe with the means to deploy military power. They should invite militarily serious member-states to join them in regular meetings. This club would work closely with the EU without being a formal part of it, rather like the ’Schengen group’ before its integration into the Union. The club should not have a permanent membership because the countries wanting to take part would vary from occasion to occasion. Italy, Spain and Belgium sent fighters to Libya but would probably opt out of an operation in, say, Transnistria. But Poland, which shunned Libya, would probably join a mission to the east.
Britain and France would be the only permanent members and the leaders. They have the most powerful military capabilities in Europe and similar strategic cultures, based on an interventionist philosophy. Linked by two defence treaties, they are learning to work together on issues such as aircraft carriers and new military technologies.
Those wanting to take part in this informal club would need to provide and be willing to use, say, a frigate or a battalion. Some governments, hopefully, would strive to boost their capabilities in the hope of gaining admission. The club could also foster pooling and sharing of capabilities and forces, as a means of saving money and promoting common approaches to defence.
Germany has the capabilities to join the club. But its strategic culture makes it reluctant to use force to prevent a humanitarian disaster, so it would not fit in. The club would evidently benefit from German involvement, if and when the country’s attitudes evolve.Just as the strengthening of the Euro Group risks weakening the European Commission, so a military avant-garde could harm the EU’s External Action Service and military institutions. Unless the club is linked to the EU it will lack legitimacy among those not taking part. The club should invite the High Representative to all its meetings. She should convey the views of other member-states and report back to them on its activities. She should also work to ensure smooth relations between the club and EU institutions. The NATO secretary-general should also attend, to ensure that the club and NATO do not work at cross purposes.
Ideally, the club would act with the blessing of the EU and NATO, so that it could use their planning staffs and commands. The Lisbon treaty’s articles on defence say that "the Council may entrust the implementation of a task to a group of member-states which are willing and have the necessary capability for such a task". Without a blessing, Britain, France and their partners would have to act in their own name, using their own planners and commands (which should be increasingly integrated).
Some of the countries outside this military avant-garde would resent its existence. But they should recognise that a Union of 27 is not well-suited to conduct a shooting war, and that the US cannot be relied upon to fight wars on behalf of Europe. That means the Europeans have to take more responsibility, though not necessarily through the Union. NATO sometimes works with 28 members (though during the Libyan crisis Turkey delayed some key decisions). When it works it does so because the US leads and cajoles the others. Within Europe, a tight Franco-British alliance needs to give that kind of leadership.
Those excluded should emulate Britain’s response to the rise of the Euro Group : it welcomes more integrated economic policy-making among the 17, so long as it does not have to take part. Germany and other pacifistic member-states should take a similarly constructive attitude towards any Franco-British scheme to boost Europe’s military power.