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Dr Lee Rotherham: Why we should pull out of the EU Defence Agency

Afghan vehicles
Dr Lee Rotherham is an author, historian and political campaigner, who has served as a TA reservist on three overseas deployments.  He is on the Approved EU Candidates List.

Many years ago in my university days, I taught English at a French school. One day, one of my friends popped round dressed as a French marine, the consequence not of a fancy dress party but of having just received his conscription call up. He proudly talked us through the various aspects of his uniform. “And this,” he surprisingly concluded, drawing our attention to some piece of bright cord, “is to remind us that we lost the Battle of Trafalgar.”

What triggered this flashback was recently randomly coming across two snippets. The first was encountering a piece by Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Baden-Powell, hero of Mafeking, founder of course of the Scouts and a respected teacher of fieldcraft, not least due to his successes in training the veldt-savvy South African Constabulary. In 1914 he penned a little pocket manual for the recently-mobilised called Quick Training for War. In it, he offers a number of intriguing anecdotes, including the following;

"I once had the interesting experience of having a talk with the present German Emperor regarding the relative value of the different arms in the field; and His Majesty said, “You will observe that I put the infantry in the front line on parade, while the cavalry, artillery, engineers and train come in the second line. The infantry take the place of honour, since, by virtue of their armament and action, it is the infantry who win the battles; the remainder are their servants.” I cordially acquiesced in the Emperor’s statement; but then he turned on me and put me a “poser,” “Why, then, do you in England put the artillery in the place of honour on the right of the line, the cavalry next, and then the engineers, and lastly the infantry?” I was rather at a loss for an answer, and blurted out the first idea that came into my head. I said, “I suppose it is that we place them in alphabetical order,” and this answer greatly pleased His Majesty, if one could judge by the chuckling which lasted for some time afterwards."

The theme of national idiosyncrasies was then swiftly bolstered on reading an email sent out by a particular army unit’s association newsletter. The quote of the month related to one Major General Sir William Erskine, of whom it was said to Wellington by Horseguards,  

"No doubt he is a little mad at times, but in his lucid intervals he is an uncommonly clever fellow; and I trust he will have no fit during the campaign, though he looked a little wild as he embarked."

Erskine, the newsletter adds, had been confined in a lunatic asylum twice and was extremely short-sighted - he had to have the position of the enemy pointed out to him on occasion. His tactical skills were also limited; at one battle, he sent all of his troops in the wrong direction. The general’s final words were reportedly, “Now why on earth did I do that?” uttered from the pavement after he had thrown himself through a window.

These and a thousand other fascinating anecdotes, told in military museums up and down the land, demonstrate the individuality of a nation’s armed forces. That applies particularly in the UK thanks to the regimental system, where descendants of units still remember for example that the Lincolnshire Regiment’s facings were of yellow (whence perhaps “Yellowbellies”), or that such-and-such a company stood firm in the maelstrom and gained an imposing battle honour.

These aspects of diversity are (Erskine aside) strengths. A unit’s proud identity encourages those who have inherited the mantle to bear it well and pass it on unblemished.

However, there is a concern over modern developments.

NATO exists to provide mutual support up to and including collective defence. It has led to a measure of harmonisation of standards, particularly of equipment, and to some extent of training, management and processes. This makes sense, particularly where there is a heavy reliance on capabilities provided by foreign units. Or to put it another way, if you can’t radio the Americans you can’t ask them to bomb the right hill or refuel you when you get back. But the process is driven by both logic and logistics.

EU military integration, however, is a different matter. In the past I have written about how this in contrast has been driven on by political aspirations.  A glance at the timeline demonstrates that the inevitable end direction is an integrated military, backed by a military industrial complex organised along continental lines rather than the strategic interests of any individual member state. Under Lisbon, advanced cooperation also now has to take place “within the Union framework”, limiting bilateral and intergovernmental cooperation and pushing Brussels to the fore.

The combination of national forces at, say, EU divisional level may of course preserve the lighter quirks of our regimental system. Such a policy was indeed mooted in the ‘Fifties as a way to absorb the new Bundeswehr, though tellingly it was rejected at the time by French parliamentarians. Under such an order of battle, Mess rules and port-passing protocol would not change. But top level integration such as is increasingly on the cards impacts far more subversively and more lethally. Participating even marginally in Eurocorps-style integration would over time bring a far broader devastation to our military ethos, percolating from the top down. It certainly puts at risk our genuinely privileged access to the Pentagon, and to the US defence procurement establishment. It also means signing up to an integrated European defence structure for politicians in Brussels to plan wild interventions on a scale greater than any actual capability; there wouldn’t be boots on the ground in sufficient strength to provide adequate force protection, let alone protecting the local civilians. The EU across the board is a threadbare substitute for NATO, for all the latter’s faults.

Why is this an issue for us today? Because of two new factors.

The first is that the Defence Secretary, Mr Hammond, has been outed as one of those Cabinet members who purportedly would vote to leave the EU if a referendum were to take place tomorrow. The reporting may be accurate, or perhaps more of a 45 minute claim. But there is a way of knowing truth from Maskirovka.

The UK is currently signed up to the EU’s Defence Agency. Ostensibly this is a harmless and commonsensical tool for getting (supposedly) cheap procurement. But a review of its track record, from Quadrilateral Defence Agency through OCCAR to its position in the EU treaties today, demonstrates quite clearly that it is an instrument of military integration. It doesn’t need to exist for countries to team up to work together on joint projects. It does need to exist in order to rationalise defence industries, with capability being shut down and divvied up across the EU. Its role after all includes defining that very European capabilities and armaments policy.

A simple test of the Secretary of State’s European credentials, and of the Government’s, can be made by withdrawing from this integrationist institution. The logic for walking away is succinctly set out elsewhere by a former insider to the debate. I am inclined to suspect, looking at the list of the department’s ministers, that the proposal could be reviewed rationally and dispassionately across the team. Handily I also suspect it would be likely also to gain approval from their predecessors, including the one Liberal Democrat in a position to comment from experience. Former Defence Minister Sir Nick Harvey was after all one of only two Eurosceptic Liberal Democrat MPs to support Bill Cash’s Private Member’s Bill way back in 1996, calling for a referendum on the UK renegotiating its membership terms to better keep out of a federal Europe (how these issues come around again).

The second development may be more of a surprise to readers. It would be jumping the gun slightly to call it just yet “building the EU Sandhurst”, but the intent is again clear and the foundations are being metaphorically cemented. The idea of the EU being involved in training military officers has been around for a couple of years, but to date has been limited to sending a bloke with a memory stick and a few courses of Death by Powerpoint. The objective now is to set up an EU military training establishment. The current model falls short of a West Point on the Yser, since the European Security and Defence College (ESDC) will be launched in network form. But the Bramshill example shows how these things develop: after only a few years in place, moves are today afoot to shunt the EU Police College into the Europol establishment and beef it up. It’s also quite clear from the ESDC mandate that part of its mission is about building up an “alumni network”, and getting High Level people seeing each other as partners of choice. Once again, the EU will gradually build from the top while the ordinary footsoldiers look on and despair.

The driving ambitions of the founding EEC member states were largely based on the military ghosts of their immediate past. Today, no one really fears what the Luftwaffe might get up to, and panzer commanders wear pink berets. Yet we as a nation find ourselves already signed up to the progressive framing of a common defence policy, intended to lead in time to a common defence. By pulling out of the EDA, and restricting UK participation in the ESDC to just turning up for courses of practical and demonstrable benefit, ministers can send another small but important message about how they see the UK’s role in an increasingly integrationist EU. That of course means diversity for the regiments, but also more crucially separateness in command.


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