Europeans need a ‘British’ navy, not a ‘German’ army

Over the weekend, the new British Defence Secretary, John Hutton, said in an interview in The Sunday Times that the time had come to consider the creation and mobilisation of a European army. He said the idea was simply ‘pragmatic’, and even went so far as to declare that while there were many anti-Europeans who opposed the idea in the United Kingdom, they were either ‘pathetic’ or at a loss with the times. As he elaborated:

Britain’s role in the world is to be part of those alliances—that’s the best way to project power, strength and conviction around the world. People who don’t understand that don’t understand the nature of the modern world.

This is very, very significant, for Mr. Hutton is the first British Defence Secretary to publically back such a move. This ties in with the emergence of the most pro-European British cabinet and government for years. David Miliband, John Hutton, the returned Peter Mandelson, and a resurgent Gordon Brown, have all ‘Europeanised’ their thinking over recent months, spurred on by Russian aggression against Georgia and the international financial crisis.

The traditional reputation of the United Kingdom as a ‘reluctant European’ may no longer carry weight. It may now be more traditional Europeans—like Germany, Spain and Italy—who get stuck in the past. Indeed, Britain is certainly furnished with unique capabilities, which give it the potential to become the keystone in the next phase of European integration. Why?

First, if the European Union is to survive in an increasingly cut-throat world where the State is re-emerging as a centre of activity, it will need to become more and more unified itself. If it cannot do this, European integration will stall and unravel, with two sets of interrelated consequences. On the one hand, the rapidly growing non-European great powers—like the United States, China, India and Russia—will turn Europeans into pawns, leading to a downward spiral of infighting and insecurity on our continent. Here, Britain has shown in recent months a steely determination to denounce foreign aggression, and bring about a united and cold-eyed European approach, not least against an increasingly wild and truculent Russia. And on the other hand, Europeans could as a consequence of non-European great power competition lose trust in one another, leading to re-militarisation and re-nationalisation, potentially bringing about the nightmare scenario elucidated in 1991 by the American geo-strategist, John Mearsheimer. Playing on the popular science fiction film of the time, he proclaimed that Europeans would move ‘Back to the Future’; in other words, the nineteenth century past would come to resemble Europe’s twenty-first century future. Britain, Germany and France would begin competing militarily against one another, tearing the continent to shreds.

Second, Britain is itself a model for the future of European integration. The Acts of Union in 1707 and 1801 brought about a cohesive British state, providing for a permanent political settlement and the foundations for the Industrial Revolution and emergence of a strong and centralised democratic government. In turn, the Acts of Union projected the country to hyperpower status, allowing London to amass the greatest empire in world history, spreading over every continent, every sea and every time zone. Indeed, so successful was the integration between England, Wales and Scotland in 1707, and then Great Britain and Ireland in 1801, that the United Kingdom has only one historical competitor: Imperial Rome. A future political settlement in the European Union should take a similar track. A European Act of Union would cement the Member States into a permanent continental order, providing the central institutions with democratic legitimacy and the means to protect Europeans and their interests over the years ahead. As Timothy Garton Ash has argued, a strong, autonomous and coherent European Union is no longer necessary to prevent conflict within Europe, but rather to defend all of us from dangerous countries and political forces beyond our own borders.

Finally, but most importantly, the British politico-military tradition should be thrust up to the European level. This moves us back to where we began: the British Defence Secretary’s support for a European army. Let us consider for a moment the traditional geopolitical approach taken by the European Union; here, a citation from the Dutch-American geo-strategist, Nicholas Spykman, may help:

Their differing conceptions…of the conquest of space indicate one of the outstanding differences between land and sea powers. A sea power conquers a large space by leaping lightly from point to point, adjusting itself to existing political relationships wherever possible, and often not establishing its legal control until its factual domination has long been tacitly recognised. An expanding land power moves slowly and methodically forward, forced by the nature of its terrain to establish its control step by step and so preserve the mobility of its forces. Thus a land power thinks in terms of continuous surfaces surrounding a central point of control, whereas a sea power thinks in terms of points and connecting lines dominating an immense territory.[1]

Of the two geo-strategic approaches—land power and sea power—the European Union has clearly taken the former. Through successive waves of expansion, Europeans have moved forward, consolidated their position around a central point of control—Brussels—absorbed the new Member States, and then moved forward again. This geo-strategy has been extremely effective, uniting the continent under a single economic and political framework. But it has also reached its limits: unless the Union is to expand into volatile regions like North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Russian steppe, it will have to alter is its approach.

Today’s European Union is therefore much like the British Isles, with the Mediterranean Sea taking the form of the English Channel, the Arctic Ocean taking the form of the North Sea, and the Dardanelles and Bosporus akin to the Straits of Dover. And while the contemporary European Union, unlike Britain, shares a land border with four countries to the East, they are either weak, or can be contained with the Anglo-French nuclear deterrent. Therefore, the European Union now forms a natural citadel, which gives it a greater ability to act as an innate ‘power projector’—again, much like the United Kingdom. This means that the European Union needs to move away from a defensive, continental—that is, Germanic—geo-strategy, and adopt a more offensive, maritime and Anglo-Celtic one.

In short, the modern European Union needs an immensely powerful navy, which can be used to circulate maritime power around the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, the Indian Ocean, and Africa’s Atlantic seaboard. It is in these regions where future European military operations will take place, and it is these regions from where the greatest threats to our security are already beginning to spring. This naval force would need a chain of naval stations and sea lines of communication to link together a durable maritime order, enabling European power to be projected rapidly into potential trouble spots, in order to exert a calming influence over belligerents.

So given its rich maritime history and its own future naval capabilities—like the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers—the United Kingdom is presented with a unique opportunity to work with other like-minded European Union Member States, not least France and the Netherlands, to press forward and forge a new era of European integration. This will create a new aggregation of power in the world, which will not only underpin and extend European interests, but also ensure that we remain on the top table of world affairs in the increasingly volatile and unpredictable world of tomorrow. If the United Kingdom plays its cards right, the European Union is Britain’s for the taking: the only issue is whether London will have the courage to stand up and seize the moment?

[1] Nicholas J. Spykman, ‘Geography and Foreign Policy II’, in The American Political Science Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, April 1938, p. 224.

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