[Blog] European defence and the future of foreign intervention

London, 06 December 2013

Foreign intervention has had its ebbs and flows over the past decades. The periods of decline have at times been long, and at others short: for example, there was a gap of less than two years between the “Black Hawk Down” episode in Somalia and the full-scale allied intervention in Yugoslavia.

Behind the willingness to intervene are key questions. What are our interests? What can coercion achieve in international relations? On a deeper level: who are we? Are we becoming weaker or do we still hold our own? What does it mean to have international responsibilities? Can we allow ourselves to sit idly by when mass atrocities are committed under our very eyes?

These questions resonate in the European psyche. Not because of any fanciful imperial nostalgia. Rather because, in the past, foreign intervention has delivered our countries from brutal regimes and given us back our freedom. We should never forget this.

Questions about intervention have taken prominence recently, with crises in Libya, Mali, Syria and now the Central African Republic. The vote of 29 August and the rejection of military intervention in Syria gave these questions a particular twist in Britain. By contrast, some in the media claim to identify a new “French robustness” in international affairs (FT: Decisive France, uncertain Britain).

I am sure there is no spontaneous appetite for foreign adventures in France. In difficult economic times, governments have other priorities. Also, there has been a clear shift with regard to French intervention in Africa, as the Summit for Peace and Security in Africa to be held on 6-7 December in Paris will illustrate (Elysée Summit).

That being said, intervention is sometimes more than justified: it is essential. When the President of Mali made an urgent request for our help in January 2013, we responded. Otherwise chaos and terrorism would have engulfed the country. Today, a major crisis is unfolding in the Central African Republic. The Africans should be in the driving seat to solve it; but we must help them do so. I am glad there is growing awareness of this appalling crisis in the UK.

But there is another dimension to the intervention debate: Europe. No doubt, the current isolationist trend, compounded by crisis, austerity, and Euroscepticism, does little to bolster European defence. However, to me, it should be a strategic no-brainer. Europeans are occupying a diminishing place in a changing and still dangerous world. NATO remains a key dimension of our security, but the American “pivot” puts the onus on the Europeans. With falling defence expenses, only cooperation will allow them to maintain their reach and indeed provide for their security. Europe is the way. On 19-20 December, European heads of state and government will discuss defence at the European Council. They will have a lot to talk about.

Here in London, as an appetizer, the French Embassy is organizing a conference on this issue on 9 December, with a stellar cast of speakers: former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine, former UK Secretary for Defence Liam Fox, head of the European Parliament’s Security and Defence subcommittee Arnaud Danjean MEP, author and journalist Simon Jenkins, and The Financial Times’s James Blitz as chair. If you are interested in attending, click here. Given the stakes, it promises to be a fascinating discussion.

Bernard Emié, French Ambassador to the UK

Published on 07/03/2014

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