When I was young the word “security” denoted that one had the wherewithal to buy a cosy retirement bungalow in the Home Counties. Today, the word has been appropriated by politicians with Orwellian intent to mean protection from foreign invasion and from terrorism. (Here at least, they’ve been more successful in the former than in the latter.) When a politician says it’s a matter of security he or she means that, if we don’t go along with their policies, something nasty might befall us.
One of the themes of this referendum campaign is security. The INs tell us that if we vote OUT we shall be less secure. On 24 February, thirteen former military chiefs[i] wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph arguing that, while NATO remains “our most important alliance” the other, increasingly important pillar of our security is the EU. That morning General Sir Michael Rose asked for his name to be removed from the letter as he did not sign it. An “administrative error” led to the inclusion of his name, Number Ten later admitted – for the letter was obviously orchestrated by Downing Street.
The argument that this coterie of superannuated top brass put forth was that there are three increasingly grave threats to our security that can only be addressed by means of co-operation with our European partners. These threats are: increasing instability across the Middle East, the advance of the so-called Islamic State and the terrorism that it apparently inspires, and “resurgent Russian nationalism and aggression”.
In a dangerous world [the EU] helps us to safeguard our people, our prosperity and our way of life. We therefore believe strongly that it is in our national interest to remain an EU member.
It is surprising that these military men should assert this when the European Union does not even have a defence identity, unlike NATO, which is explicitly the defensive military alliance of most European countries with the USA plus Canada.
The idea of a European Army has been mooted over the years – principally by the French, who assume that they would run it – but is still very far from reality. True, the armies of France and Germany formed a joint brigade in 1989 which currently consists of about 4,000 soldiers based around Strasbourg on both sides of the Franco-German border. This brigade, which was cut back a few years ago, is a splendid symbol of Franco-German friendship and common purpose, but does not amount to much more.
So the forces available to the European Union are those of its member states. And most member states spend pitifully little on defence – much to the chagrin of the Americans.
Actually, four EU members are not part of the NATO alliance so are technically speaking neutral powers. They are: Sweden, Finland, Austria and Ireland. The reasons for their neutrality are historical.
Sweden was the only European power to have sailed through the 20th century without involvement in either World War – or any other war for that matter. In fact, Sweden has not been at war since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Despite the efforts of its Nazi-sympathising king during WWII, Sweden wisely kept out – though recall that some brave Swedish partisans assisted in the liberation of Norway in 1945. Sweden even viewed the Cold War with Olympian detachment – nothing to do with us, old boy. Although its neutrality was tested on several occasions by the incursion of Russian submarines into Swedish waters – most dramatically in 1982, when a Russian sub, armed to the teeth, ran aground in the Stockholm archipelago. More recent incursions by Mr Putin’s navy have ignited a debate about possible NATO membership. But Sweden is culturally attached to its neutrality – a country dedicated to the celebration of massage, gravlax, flat-packed furniture and World Peace.
Both Finland and Austria were let off lightly by the Russians at the end of WWII for their collaboration with Hitler by signing treaties which specifically pledged them to a policy of neutrality. In return for which the Russians left them alone. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, these treaties still obtained. So, unlike for former Soviet territories such as the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuanian and Estonia) which joined NATO in the 1990s, they could not follow suit even if they had wanted to. Maybe they could re-negotiate the treaties – but it is doubtful that the Russians would play ball.
Ireland has also maintained a lofty neutrality since independence from Britain in 1922. Famously, while Europe endured the Second World War, the Irish endured The Emergency. Though let us not forget the many brave Irishmen who fought under British (and American) colours – only to be reviled by their fellow countrymen when they returned home. (There is at last a monument to the Irishmen who fell in two World Wars in Dublin – though it still provokes controversy.) Despite the efforts of the USA over the years to enlist Ireland into NATO, the old historic grievance about partition still trumps all else.
So if Mr Putin were to send tanks into a Baltic State, all the NATO states, led by the good old USA, would get fired up but these four EU countries would just be left muttering on the side-lines.
The scenario envisaged in the recent BBC2 World War Three: Inside the War Room, about which I wrote on these pages on 04 February – Mr Putin Sells the Family Silver – was a Russian military intervention in Latvia[ii]. Two of the war-gamers were former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Sir Richard Shirreff and First Sea Lord Admiral Lord West. These two men were also signatories to the Daily Telegraph letter – so they are clearly keeping busy in retirement. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that they have launched new careers as Putin-bashers.
(Weird, but I have just taken a short break from writing this to give a dog a yard break and I switched on R4: Eddie Mare in discussion with Lord West. The Lord, who was Gordon Brown’s Minister for Security (how Orwellian is that?) described Europe as profoundly flaky. (Stephen Fry once said: We know the Germans are brutes because they don’t have a word for “fluffy”. But what is the German for “flaky”?) Yet despite their flakiness, said His Lordship, we must stick with Europe because to leave would make Mr Putin happy. Is that a serious argument?)
The European Union does not deploy military forces in its own name and its members would only normally do so by virtue of their membership of NATO. When President Sarkozy of France launched an air campaign against the Gaddafi regime in Libya in February 2011, immediately backed by Britain’s David Cameron, the operation was carried out under the auspices of NATO – not the EU – and an important participant was Norway (that little country has 46 LM F-16 fighters) which is not even a member of the EU.
Note that the Germans decided to stay out of that adventure – very sensibly, as it happens, since most analysts now agree that the operation was a disaster. Once again, the power structures of the (admittedly ghastly) regime were annihilated without any attempt to create an alternative government. Libya is now a failed state. It is clear that the French, who opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, learnt none of the lessons of that catastrophe. So, even if Europe did have a common army, it is doubtful that the French and Germans would agree on how to use it.
If the EU is incapable of doing war-war, what it does do par excellence is jaw-jaw. The Brussels elite have created an elaborate foreign policy architecture with, at its head, the Haut Représentent of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The first person to occupy the giddy position was our very own Baroness Ashton of Upholland. (Who? She was a senior social worker whom Tony Blair met at a drinks party. Though her husband is the clever Peter Kellner.) The Economist described her as being a virtual unknown with paltry political experience, having no foreign-policy background and never having been elected to anything. That was one of the nicer reviews: even the slavishly pro-EU Guardian described her as a garden gnome. Later, to be fair, some were more generous. My point is that, even in Europe, few people knew what she was for.
Baroness Ashton’s successor is also – I would wager – someone that you have never heard of – Frederica Mogherini – a former Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs (for about seven months). Since her appointment to the top EU job on 01 November 2014 Signora Mogherini has gained attention for just one thing: a speech in Brussels in June last year in which she said:
Islam belongs in Europe. It holds a place in Europe’s history, in our culture, in our food, and – what matters most – in Europe’s present and future. Like it or not, this is the reality. I am not afraid to say that political Islam should be part of the picture.
Henry Kissinger once asked the question: if you want to speak to Europe – whom do you call? Well, Donald, when you make it to the Oval Office – call Signora Mogherini. It’ll be fun.
Even the French don’t regard Europe as a military-security focused entity. They speak of France-Afrique – the policy of maintaining French interests in Africa. I think you will find that in N’Djamena, Chad’s political elite are driven around in bullet-proof Peugeots.
Here in the UK, there is the somewhat doe-eyed view that Europe has kept the peace – for which any price is worth paying. Well, it is certainly true that The EU has maintained not just peace, but solidarity, between France and Germany, which it was precisely designed to do by Jean Monet, Robert Schumann and all its original architects. But please don’t tell me that the UK’s departure from this club will doom France and Germany to go to war again. That is absurd.
Some of the signatories to the Telegraph letter, by the way, are likely to be fingered by the Chilcot Inquiry (if and when it is ever allowed to report) as having egged on Blair over Iraq. We shall see. There’s a lot of reputation management in play here – and the Putin-bashing is part of it. You won’t hear the top brass say, as some intelligent voices now do, that we have exacerbated the Syrian Civil War by implacably opposing Assad from the beginning.
Just to revisit those three fault lines. One could argue that Europe, by its naïve response to the Arab Spring, its persistent appeasement of Turkey, and its inept handling of the migrant crisis has actually exacerbated political instability in the Middle East and has made Islamic State’s task easier. As for Russia: who was it who provoked Putin in the first place by offering Ukraine EU membership?
Personally, I’d feel more secure if Messrs Cameron and Osborne could restore defence spending to the meagre levels it attained under Blair-Brown. Currently, we spend more on Housing Benefit than on the Royal Navy. And I’d feel even more secure if we could reach America’s defence spend of four percent of GDP – something we sustained until the late 1980s. That’s what these officer types should really be arguing for.
And I’d feel calmer if we didn’t have to listen to Signora Mogherini’s rantings. We’ll be more secure out of Europe. And no line-up of exhausted (and discredited) ex-military has-beens will persuade me otherwise.
[i] The signatories were: Field Marshal Lord Bramall Former Chief of Defence Staff, Field Marshal Lord Guthrie Former Chief of Defence Staff, Marshal of the RAF Jock Stirrup Former Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Boyce Former Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Lord West Former First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope Former First Sea Lord, General Sir Mike Jackson Former Chief of the General Staff, General Lord Dannatt Former Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Rupert Smith Former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Sir Richard Shirreff Former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszeley Former Director General of the Defence Academy, Lieutenant General Sir Rob Fry Former Deputy Chief of Defence Staff.
[ii] The War Room included former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Sir Richard Shirreff; First Sea Lord Admiral Lord West; Joint Intelligence Committee Chair, Baroness Neville-Jones; British Ambassador to the United States, Sir Christopher Meyer; and British Ambassador to Moscow, Sir Tony Brenton.