Speech by the Minister of Defence, J.A. Hennis‐Plasschaert, at the European Parliament (SEDE) on 5 November 2013
Dear former colleagues,
It is a great pleasure to be here today. As some of you know, I was a member of this house for six years. I left the European Parliament in 2010. Being here again brings back fond memories.
Long before my time as an MEP, I spent a few years in Riga (Latvia) as a civil servant of the European Commission. Latvia was still a candidate member state at the time. A country struggling to make the transition. And living in Latvia made me realize – more than ever before – that liberty, security and prosperity can never be taken for granted. I came to the conclusion that a free and safe environment – such as the one I grew up in – is never self‐evident. That it is worth fighting for, every single day.
Years later, that understanding struck me even more on one of my trips to Belarus to visit the opposition. Let me rephrase that: I went to Belarus in an attempt to visit the opposition, for as soon as I arrived I was interrogated and denied entry by Lukashenko and his people. This incident strengthened my belief that Europe has a key role to play in securing and defending democratic values in other countries. I sincerely hope that your committees are still actively supporting the fight for democracy in Belarus.
Stability and democracy in countries such as Belarus not only benefit the citizens of those countries, they are also very much in Europe’s interest.
For by now, we all surely agree that events in other parts of the world (close to our boarders or far away) have a direct impact on our own security and prosperity.
Clearly, European involvement in conflict regions serves not only to curb terrorism, but also to secure our trading routes, for example, as well as access to raw materials that are vital to our industry. So, for this reason too, Europe cannot afford to turn its back on the fires burning in other regions.
And fires are indeed burning around the world, ladies and gentlemen, constantly shifting and taking us by surprise as the wind abruptly changes direction or speed. The global geopolitical landscape is in a state of flux: the balance of power is shifting, and new actors are gaining influence. As a result, the world has become more complex and less predictable. I would go so far as to say that nowadays, uncertainty is the most important feature in international relations.
And I am convinced that in this complex global setting, Europe can only deal with current and emerging threats if we work together. The need for a more active, more coherent and more capable European Union in the field of security and defence is urgent. We must carry our share of the burden, including the risks. This would also send a clear signal to the United States, our indispensable partner in European security for over 65 years.
In the past, there were those who argued that a strong Europe in the field of security and defence would harm NATO. I am convinced, however, that a strong Europe will only benefit NATO and reinforce the transatlantic bond. Obviously, we should not aim for duplication of what is being done effectively under NATO. Nor should we strive to decouple ourselves from the US. We need to ensure complementarity, cooperation and coordination.
And that is why our Heads of State and Government must not miss the opportunity to send a strong message at December’s European Council meeting that security and defence do matter! We must position Europe to become a credible provider of security, in its immediate region and beyond.
Today, just weeks away from that important European Council meeting, we have to ask ourselves whether or not we are on the right track. I believe we are. But at the same time I would like to emphasize the need for stepping up our efforts.
It is time to take our cooperation to the next level.
And this holds in particular for our military cooperation. Given that financial austerity will remain an issue for all of us in the years to come, it makes sense to join forces to achieve the economies of scale that will enable us to boost our military effectiveness. Besides, we should always spend our taxpayers’ money wisely.
But most importantly, Europe’s military shortfalls – identified by NATO as well as the EU – can only be fixed if we develop joint approaches. And this means closer political cooperation. EU Member States should not be counteracting each other, but rather complementing each other. If we want to enhance our ability to act, this is the only way to do it. Only then can we say that we are truly committed to the Common Security and Defence Policy. Only then can Europe become a credible provider of security. And only then will Europe be a reliable and capable ally.
This is not the prelude to a European army, nor a NATO army. Member States or combinations of Member States will have to provide Europe with the military means to act. This means that each and every European nation is both indispensable to and responsible for European security. As the famous quote goes, it is “All for one and one for all”.
The next steps we need to take are outlined in Lady Ashton’s recent report, which reflects the consensus that has emerged on the areas, or clusters, we need to focus on in order to further strengthen the CSDP. The report rightly notes that Europe still lacks the capabilities as well as the coherence to take on more responsibility.
Another good thing about the report is that it is pragmatic and concrete, making optimal use of mechanisms that are already in place. And I wholeheartedly agree with such an approach. Let me be frank: we do not need more headquarters, more civil servants or more bureaucracy. What we do need is leadership, long‐term commitment and courage. A pragmatic bottom‐up approach enabled by top‐down guidance.
Now let me comment on some aspects of the report.
To start with, the comprehensive approach. The Netherlands strongly supports the call for a more coherent use of the various EU instruments. This is the only way to secure sustainable peace and stability in failing states. I hope the High Representative and the Commission will come up with the expected Joint Communication very soon.
Moving on to the EU Battle Groups. I have repeatedly stated: use them or lose them. Of course, the Battle Groups have been – and still are – instrumental in helping to reinforce the interoperability and effectiveness of Member States’ armed forces. However, they have yet to be deployed.
I am convinced the EU Battle Groups are not been used to their full potential. They could, for instance, be deployed at the beginning of an EU Training Mission, providing force protection. Why not use forces that are well‐trained and available for EU operations?
Decision‐making is cumbersome and takes too long. This can be remedied by holding regular political consultations in which emerging crises and likely scenarios are discussed. Such consultations would help prepare the ground for swift decision‐making when needed.
The five countries contributing to this year’s UK‐led EU Battle Group are Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Sweden and, obviously, the UK. These countries recently made a number of suggestions to speed things up. These include holding exercises in EU‐wide political decision‐making, a regular Battle Group certification process as well as fixed planning scenarios.
I truly hope that we can arrive at some clear conclusions during the Defence ministers’ meeting in mid‐November. And I would welcome specifics on this in the Council’s Conclusions.
Now, the enhancement of capability development should, in my view, be considered the centrepiece of the report. I repeat: Europe’s military shortfalls can only be fixed by developing joint approaches.
Lady Ashton’s report very rightly states that Member States should share their capability plans. And that also means breaking new ground with respect to planning, acquisition, training and logistical support. It means that we must align our collective requirements and national priorities. If we are serious about preventing further gaps in essential military capabilities in Europe, we should end the current practice of making military investments in splendid national isolation.
I firmly believe European cooperation in the field of capability development is no longer a choice or a nice‐to‐have but a necessity. It is therefore also important that Member States act in line with the Code of Conduct on Pooling & Sharing and commit themselves to the delivery of key capabilities through major cooperative projects. This would allow us to create capabilities in an efficient manner
while increasing military effectiveness at the same time. And of course, we need to remain fully interoperable – not only with European allies and partners but also with the US.
Should the 28 Member States always act in unison? My answer would be no. As I have said, a bottom‐up approach enabled by top‐down guidance is the way forward.
As noted in Lady Ashton’s report, it is natural that cooperation is deepening in smaller groups. This will yield faster results than initiatives involving all 28 Member States. The good thing is that the capabilities developed in smaller groups can be used at the European level and can inspire other Member States to undertake similar initiatives. The cooperation achieved by smaller groups could also be opened up to other Member States at a later stage.
My country’s cooperation with Belgium, for example, has resulted in fully integrated navies. The Netherlands is also cooperating with Germany in a joint German‐Netherlands Army Corps with a permanent headquarters. And there is much more to come. Last week I signed a letter of intent with my Belgian counterpart on integrated air policing, including Quick Reaction Alert and national Renegade tasks. Now that is a perfect example of broadening cooperation in the area of defence by pooling and sharing resources. And there is also the UK‐NL amphibious force. These are just a few examples from a long list of cooperation initiatives.
Dear Members of the European Parliament,
A crucial aspect of closer European cooperation is the understanding that such cooperation can only be effective if partner nations are trustworthy and predictable in their responses. Saying ‘yes’ to military cooperation means saying ‘yes’ to military participation. Reliable partners do not pull back their shared capabilities at the last minute. It would create political havoc and could threaten military partnerships.
This understanding, however, has yet to be generally accepted. It is therefore essential that the members of this house but also the members of our national parliaments become truly engaged in this debate.
And this is where your committees could play an important role, for example by facilitating regular political consultations between parliaments. I am convinced that a structural dialogue will be of added value to political decision‐making in the EU Member States.
When it comes to enhancing our strength, to maximizing the use of our capabilities and to optimizing our joint operations…all of us should feel ownership. And for continued public support, all of us should be ‘on message’.
However, closer military cooperation is still perceived by many as a constraint on sovereignty and national control. And as a result, we are all too often undermining our efficiency and effectiveness. The bottom line is that if we want to protect our sovereignty through military means, cooperation is indispensable. And when we consider our armed forces working effectively within the EU and within NATO, enhancing our ability to act in times of crises…we can only conclude that closer European cooperation is not a constraint but rather an enhancement of our sovereignty and security.
In closing, I would point out that our armed forces are well aware that there is a strong case for greater European cooperation in the field of security and defence. They understand the need for Europe to become a credible provider of security, in its immediate region and beyond. It is at the political level that we find obstacles to closer cooperation. But I repeat, the need for a more active, more coherent and more capable EU in the field of security and defence is urgent.
So let us act accordingly. And I do hope that this house will spread the word too.
(NLD ministry of Defence, 5 November 2013)