Interview with Tomas Valasek: “EU has too few soldiers!”

in International Relations & Defence by
Tomas Valasek
Tomas Valasek

Interview conducted by Czech political analyst Jakub Janda with respected security expert Tomas Valasek on the question of European defense, Libya, and the future of NATO in the light of the decline of American support.

In your recent study, Surviving Austerity – The Case for a New Approach to EU Military Collaboration, you argue that European countries should be looking to mitigate the effects of financial pressures by pooling military resources with like-minded nations, creating “islands of co-operation”. Could you give us a brief analysis what would it mean in the real world environment?

European countries have too few soldiers with the right skills and equipment. While there are many reasons for this – for example, the Europeans spend less per soldier than the Americans do – chiefly, the Europeans underperform because with 27 different governments managing, equipping and commanding 27 militaries they never enjoy economies of scale when buying and maintaining equipment or training soldiers. My study proposes that European armed forces start doing so together, and that they pool their bases, schools, maintenance facilities etc.  They should not do so at the basis of all 27 EU countries, but among small groups of governments that know and trust each other. In fact, some, such as the Belgians and the Dutch, are already doing so.

You also mentioned, that, there is still a lot of hardware in our (European) arsenals that frankly we have inherited and we don’t really know what to do with. Nowadays many critics say that current European arsenal cannot be effectively compatible with the US Military technology in joint operations, such as NATO interaction in Libya. Is it really that crucial?

NATO’s biggest challenge is not whether the Europeans and the Americans have compatible forces and technology. The greatest problem is that the Europeans have fewer and fewer forces to send to common operations. The Americans have steadily increased their defense budget over the past decade; the Europeans have, on average, decreased it each year. Overtime, a gulf has grown that the Americans find, for good reasons, politically unacceptable. The Europeans are unlikely to start spending more money on their militaries anytime soon – not when the economic crisis here is even more severe than in the US. But what the Europeans can and must do if they want to keep the Americans engaged in NATO is to spend their money more wisely. That means getting rid of some unneeded Cold War equipment, and collaborating on procurement, maintenance, training etc.

In his speech to the NATO ministers of defense, retiring US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pointed out that the USA covers free fourths of the NATO budget and is nor able nor willing to continue in such trend. Does such statement support your argument that Europe should start taking care of its security? Could you expand your arguments what should European countries do?

For the time being, the United States remains the indispensable ally, committed to defend Europe if necessary.  But their attitudes are changing: the Americans no longer want to lead ‘wars of choice’ on Europe’s periphery; those fought in the name of human rights (such as the one in Libya). This is partly because US interests have moved elsewhere, to Asia and the Middle East, but also because American politicians and defence officials have come to feel that European countries are not taking the security of their own continent seriously enough. The allies have big economies and capable militaries, and in the future the Pentagon will expect them to be able to assure security of Europe’s periphery with little US help.

Since we talked about some aspects of European security, could you comment on current situation in Ukraine? Does it pose a threat to European security any aspect, especially in energetic strategies of the EU?

Russia and Ukraine are tussling over control of Ukraine’s gas pipelines so yes, another gas war is possible and would be bad for the EU. But this is a problem partly of our own making: some of the governments in Europe’s east have failed to invest in alternatives sources of energy to Russian gas. I am frustrated with Ukraine for a different reason: this should be a prosperous place and an important trading partner to the Central Europeans. Ukraine is a large country with a well-educated workforce and mineral and agricultural wealth. If it were better managed, it would be a lot richer – and all of Central Europe would benefit. Eastern parts of Poland, Hungary and Slovakia – some of the poorest parts of Central Europe – should in principle be booming and growing from trade with Ukraine. But they are not, mostly because Ukraine has been governed by crooks for most of its independence.

Thank you for your time,
Jakub Janda

Tomas Valasek is Director of Foreign policy & Defence at the London-based think tank Centre for European Reform. He has written extensively on transatlantic relations, common European foreign and security policy and on defence industry issues. He is also a senior advisor to the Brussels office of the World Security Institute.

Previously, he served as Policy Director and head of the Security and Defence Policy Division at the Slovak Ministry of Defence.

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