On the 4th of December 2012 NATO announced that they would be supporting the placement of missiles along the Turkey-Syria border, the deployment of which started at the beginning of this month (January 2013). The decision to augment Turkey’s defences was undertaken by the NATO foreign ministers in order to “preserve, protect and enhance the ability to defend the population and territory of Turkey” after “repeated violations” by Syria. NATO has been clear and decisive, asserting that the missiles are there for purely defensive purposes. However, one question which automatically springs to mind when looking at the situation through Europe-tinted lenses is: where is the EU? Or, more specifically, where is the ‘Common Security and Defence Policy’- an innovation which the Lisbon Treaty was supposed to enhance solely to increase the EU’s visibility on the foreign policy stage? It must be acknowledged that the EU as an institution cannot be said to have been silent on the violence in Syria, nor described as completely inactive. However, in terms of hard foreign policy, such as the active defence of sovereign territory or intervention in an inhumane conflict, the EU remains a watchful bystander.
Now this is not a call to arms, a call for the countries of Europe to unite and form a ‘world police’ that fight battles for the good of humanity. Rather, it is a call for the EU to follow through with its plans to create a common security and defence policy, and thus to speak and, most importantly, act as one in world affairs. It’s not that the EU is doing nothing. Since May 2011 they have brought in a series of restrictive measures in response to the Syrian government’s violence. These measures include: prohibiting the import or export of arms into or out of Syria; trade restrictions of various goods and services in and out of the country such as oil, gold and financial investment; and the freezing of all EU assets belonging to the Syrian national bank and those associated with Assad’s repressive regime. These measures, given time, will no doubt have an impact on the conflict. To paraphrase the famous dictum attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, a dictator marches on his bank balance, and so by restricting the flow of capital into Assad’s pocket the EU may eventually get results. However, these long term ‘soft power’ strategies will do little to ease the fears of the Turkish government, or indeed the governments of any country along Europe’s south-eastern edge. The Patriot missiles have been sent to Turkey to defend their territory and population, and hence this is an area which the EU’s common defence policy should be prominent: particularly as Turkey remains a candidate country.
Furthermore, the threat posed by Syria is not just a threat to Turkey, but to Europe as a whole. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative [NTI], Syria possesses and has the capability to mobilise a range of chemical weapons including scud-type missiles and missiles containing various nerve agents. Although the biggest likelihood is that the Syrian army may use these weapons against rebel fighters within their own country (a major humanitarian concern anyway), the possession of these weapons by a deteriorating rogue state hostile to the west is also worrying to Europe’s democracies. President Assad has been continually warned by world leaders that the use of chemical weapons, against people in his own country or outside of it, would be viewed as unacceptable, with President Obama declaring in December 2012 that Syria would be held accountable for any use of chemical weapons and that if that were the case there would be ‘consequences.’ EU leaders have been similarly stern, with a statement from the bloc’s 27 foreign minister’s asserting their “serious concern” over the potential use of chemical weapons, and the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton arguing that the presence of chemical weapons in any conflict was “cause for concern.” So why was it that when the military trucks started rolling into Turkey they had NATO badges blazoned on the side?
The obvious answer is that Turkey is a member of NATO but isn’t a member of the EU. Therefore when it looked for military assistance it naturally turned to the international institution which it was a part of. However, this is not so much the solution as the problem. Were the EU capable of orchestrating a decisive defence and security policy its status as protector of endangered nations in the region would improve. And, as it is unlikely that existing member nations will come under external threat, it is the conflicts on the edge of Europe which provide the EU the best opportunity to show their mettle. What is really hindering the development of a coherent security policy is the fact that unanimity is needed in the EU council in order to deploy joint military resources. This restriction, upheld by member states concerned with the consequent loss of national sovereignty should Brussels have a greater role in defence policy, stifles any real chance of the EU acting collectively and decisively in world affairs.
On the other hand, said sovereignty of EU member nations is willingly passed up to NATO, as shown by the fact that some of the missiles and personnel being deployed to Turkey this month emanated from Germany and the Netherlands. So, there is reason to presume that at some point the EU will be able to formulate its own purposeful security and defence policy. However, in order to do so it has to take the lead. It has to start by working with NATO to formulate a defence network that covers the whole of Europe, while also paying particular attention to its relationships with bordering states to ensure peace and prosperity for the entire region. Essentially, the EU has to show that the allegiances of the Cold War are outdated, and that it has the potential to keep close ties with the US while ensuring Europe’s interests are at the heart of any collective foreign policy. Once its pedigree in the international security sphere has become more established, it should be able to command more of the resources of its members. For example having at least a small number of troops and weaponry at its disposal to be deployed in emergency situations: such as that on the Turkey-Syria border. It is only then that the EU will be able to replace NATO as the continents primary defence organisation, and become the decisive and coherent foreign policy actor it wants to be.