France and the ESDP: St Malo, ten years later

21 February 2008

Gérard Errera, Secretary General, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said he had been present when the St Malo Declaration had been drawn up in 1998, which had been one of the most gratifying moments of his career. Sadly, ten years later, things are more uncertain, given Europe’s greater challenges and responsibility of defending a much larger territory.

There are several ways to judge the effects of St Malo, said Mr Errera:

  • the Zhou Enlai way - that it is too early to judge;
  • the Mahatma Gandhi way - that Western civilisation would be a good idea;
  • the Stalin Way - it depends on the strength of your military capacity.

However, he was going to adopt a more modest, realistic approach, accepting that it takes time to put an EU defence policy into practice.

Taking an historical perspective

Mr Errera gave an historical overview of the Europe’s defence capacity.

In 1949, the Atlantic alliance was formed to defend Europe against the Soviet threat. As the war had left Europe weakened, European leaders insisted that the US be a “perpetual physical presence” in Europe, contrary to the received wisdom that it had wanted to take an imperialist stance.

In 1952 a Treaty for a European Defence Community was agreed, but never put into effect. This was a “missed opportunity”, given the need to defend Europe properly during the Cold War.

The year 1991 marked the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the dismantling of Yugoslavia. This was the date when Europe had to accept that its moral duty was to defend democratic values; sadly, it lacked the physical means to do so.

In 1996, the Berlin Declaration was adopted - the first time that all NATO allies accepted the principle that operations decided by the Western European Union would be backed up by NATO’s military means.

1998 saw the signing of the St Malo Declaration, when the French and the British governments agreed that as well as an economic market, the EU was now a defence player, so needed an appropriate military capability. This was “revolutionary”, insisted Mr Errera, as it both marked the end of the UK veto against a common European foreign and defence policy, and introduced the concept of an autonomous European independent military response.

As other EU Member States realised the importance of this bilateral Franco-British Declaration, it was expanded into a pan-Europe one, introducing a single military decision-making authority. Since 2003, the EU has carried out a series of military and non-military operations - in Indonesia, Afghanistan, the Balkans, etc., some with and some without NATO support.

This has engendered a “pragmatic” relationship between NATO and the EU, with the modus operandi of each exercise decided on a case-by-case basis. Mr Errera stressed that there is no European or NATO army as such, but a collection of national forces, which pools equipment and arms capacity and carries out joint military training.

He believed the creation of the post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, as set out in the Lisbon Treaty, could make “substantial progress” in helping to balance the “military and civilian governance” of these exercises. However, if Europe really wants to move on, it will have to clearly identify its defence objectives: whether it is to defeat terrorism, maintain energy security, deal with climate change or cope with natural disasters.

This will call for political vision, said Mr Errera, explaining that the Elysée is preparing a White Paper on defence and security. He anticipated that both the EU and NATO will be carrying out similar exercises, which - given EU Member States’ differing economic and social priorities - will inevitably lead them to reassess their defence budgets.

“Europe is not from Venus”

Mr Errera criticised the often-accepted notion that the US is “from Mars”, and likes to wage war, while Europe is “from Venus”, preferring a more “feminine”, conciliatory approach. This fails to reflect reality, he said, as establishing a common defence policy is the best way of ensuring a strong, stable Europe.

He also rejected the idea that a European defence capability is a threat to NATO, citing countless examples of how each time Europe strengthens its military capacity, this increases NATO’s coherence and its activities.

Turning to French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s position, Mr Errera said he was working both to restore France’s relationship with NATO and to strengthen the European Defence Policy - and showing that the two are not incompatible. The biggest threat to NATO is a divided Europe that relinquishes its defence responsibilities.

The French Secretary General felt that people underestimated how much progress had been achieved on European defence, as there was considerable progress “in the making”. One had to accept that it took a long time before all EU Member States felt they “owned” it.

Both the EU and the US have to recognise that while, at times, they can wield hard power, this cannot deliver on all the aims, as, at others, non-military means can prevent and solve crises. But Europe must have the military potential to use force if necessary.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, politicians were optimistic about building a new form of dialogue and partnership between Europe and the US, and while this has been a long time coming, Mr Errera said he was optimistic that it is emerging. He is convinced that future historians will see the early 2000s as the “hinge-years” for building a new world order.

He described the lessons he had learned from three books. The first, Five Days in London: May 1940 by John Lukacs, described how one man, Winston Churchill, had changed the course of World War II. The second, That Sweet Enemy, plotted the relationship between France and the UK and showed one needed to grasp opportunities when they occurred. The third, The Peacemakers, described the negotiations after World War I and questioned whether the politicians involved had risen to the challenge. Together, the books raise questions that apply to the challenges Europe faces.

Sir Stephen Wall, UACES President and former UK Permanent Representative to the EU, paid tribute to Mr Errera, saying he had worked with rigour and tenacity like the rest of the French government, while moving forward in a cooperative way.

He added that the EU has a long history of trying to make progress on its defence policy, but foreign policy has changed so much over the last 30 years that current critical issues veered towards topics such as demography and climate change.