Just as recent operations have reminded us of the limits of the military tools available to European states, Poland is due to take over the rotating Presidency of the European Union on July 1st. Given Poland’s great defence ambitions, the coming months may represent a chance to give fresh impetus to the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Firstly, however, Poland’s plans need to be correctly deciphered. By Antonin TISSERON, Associate Fellow at th Thomas More Institute.
On July 1st 2011, Poland will be taking over the rotating Presidency of the European Union. After an unremarkable Hungarian presidency, a Belgian presidency that lapsed into an institutional crisis affecting the entire country and a Spanish presidency that was swept away by the economic and financial crisis, the Polish presidency brings hope of seeing fresh impetus being given to defence in Brussels. Over the last few years, Warsaw has established itself as a diplomatic and military stalwart, eager to embark on reinforcing security on the European continent. However, we need to look beyond the initiatives and stances adopted by the Polish government and set Poland’s enthusiasm in the wider geopolitical context of Eastern Europe and the country’s relationships with the United States and Russia.
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Poland’s ambitions for the Europe of defence
In December 2010, the foreign affairs and defence ministers of the three Weimar triangle countries (Germany, France and Poland) sent a letter to High representative Catherine Ashton in which they pleaded in favour of giving fresh impetus to the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). They explained that given the current context of extreme financial constraints, they needed to be prepared to make audacious decisions. They then went on to request a more efficient, more operational CSDP.
Although the letter was signed by all three Weimar triangle countries, it was in fact the fruit of Polish diplomatic activism initiated in 2009 designed to boost the CSDP. At the time, this was considered as one of the five priorities for Poland’s European presidency (1). On 19th July 2009, Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski handed over an official document, referred to as a “non paper”, to French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner. The Polish document went by the name of the “Chobielin initiative”, Chobielin being the manor in north-western Poland where the meeting between the two ministers was held. In it, several proposals were put forward to make the European Security and Defence Policy (the ESDP, which subsequently became the CSDP) a dynamic tool for preventing and solving conflicts: creation of a deputy High Representative for EU foreign policy in charge of the ESDP, establishment of an integrated European civil and military headquarters; creation of “stabilisation forces” (army, police and border guards); temporary exchanges of units within the framework of operations under the aegis of the EU; an increase in the number of joint exercises and finally, European industrial projects. The Chobielin initiative was appreciated to different extents by French diplomacy. In particular, the proposals were judged too institutional and not sufficiently capacity-oriented. However, it did generate several diplomatic exchanges with France and Germany, which ultimately resulted in the letter sent in December 2010.
Since then, the catchword of the future presidency has become “European integration”, with three main priorities: growth, openness and safety. Within this new segmentation, the Europe of Defence has been pushed into the background as a way of contributing to a “safer” Europe, alongside economic governance, the common agricultural policy and energy safety. Although this new discretion contrasts with previous announcements and initiatives, it needs to be put into perspective. For Poland and for Europe in general, there are other more important subjects in the short term. What is more, since the Lisbon Treaty came into force, the entire burden of foreign and defence policy has been removed from the shoulders of the rotating Presidency (2). Warsaw nevertheless remains as ambitious as ever, as shown by the launch of joint seminars withFrance and Germany, organised by subject. The seminar topics are command capacities (in Germany), tactical units and their usage (in Poland) and defence capacities (inFrance) (3).
A country seeking security
Poland’s concerns about security are based on an awareness of external threats. The feeling that the Poles are not safe from a large scale attack on their own soil is a common public belief shared by the political class.
This geopolitical view is primarily the fruit of the country’s history. Even until very recently, Poland has been tossed back and forth between more or less controlled independence and pure and simple disappearance (between 1795 and 1918) (4). Whereas travel is limited by the Carpathians along the North-South axis, the great Polish plain makes intrusions easy from the East and the West. Since German recognition of the “Oder-Neisse” line in 1990, Berlin has no longer been regarded as a threat. Memories of the lightning campaign in September 1939 remain vivid, and the past regularly comes up in debates and discussions between the two countries (5). However, the great factor of uncertainty and instability nowadays as far as Warsaw is concerned is located in the East rather than in Germany. Against a backdrop of re-emerging authoritarian traditions since the arrival in power of Vladimir Putin (6), Moscow’s foreign policy has revived Russian ambitions to enforce a policy of power and influence on its close environment. The energy weapon has therefore been used against neighbouring Eastern Europe, whilst NATO has been designated as a “threat” in defence doctrine. The Russian offensive in Georgia in August 2008 considerably reinforced the idea of Russia posing a threat. Moscow’s involvement reminded Warsaw that Russia would not hesitate to use armed force against a neighbour, or even to stir up trouble in order to justify getting involved. In the eyes of the Polish Chief of Staff, the outbreak of conflict was due to manipulation of Georgian President Saakashvili by the Russian secret service. In the circumstances, the American – and French - refusal to involve their armed forces left its mark on the Poles, especially as the American administration had been talking about the possibility of integrating Georgia within NATO prior to the conflict, and had also been planning to set up two bases there. As proof of the tension which reigned within the Atlantic alliance at the time, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs apparently complained to the Americans a few months after the conflict that NATO had become a “toothless political club”, warning that Poland would not accept a repetition of the scenario in the Ukraine (7). And when the aircraft transporting the Polish President and 95 other passengers (including the most important national military authorities) crashed on 10th April 2010, accusations were soon made of Russian responsibility.
The importance Poland places on the idea of a Europe of Defence should be replaced in the context of the country’s search for security. We must not forget that Polish history accentuates the country’s sentiment of being a fragile nation surrounded by powerful neighbours. For Poland, developing a good relationship with Moscow is a priority in order to guarantee Polish independence and security. However, as far as Russia is concerned, dialogue and cooperation are not sufficient. Poland needs to be able to defend itself, and to be defended, be it by other European countries or by the United States. And when it comes to security, there are several different alliance and relationship games going on which are interlinked.
A pro-European approach in a pro-Atlanticist framework
Despite the position adopted by the Americans in the Russo-Georgian war and the way in which they announced their decision to reorganise the American anti-missile shield in Europe on 17th September 2009, giving up their original plans to install missile interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech republic and deciding instead to deploy their systems in Southern Europe (in Romania or Bulgaria)(8), the United States remains a pillar of Polish security. It was by emphasising their “closest ally” status that Poland became involved in Iraq and Afghanistan (approximately 2 500 out of the 100 000 men involved in each operation, all of whom were professional soldiers) and that the two countries signed a declaration of technical cooperation in August 2008 (9).
More recently, in June 2010, the Polish government also negotiated for 32 Patriot missiles to be based in the country and, following Barack Obama’s trip to Poland in May 2011, Poland should soon be receiving F-16 and C-130 American aircraft for joint practice flights, as well as a permanent U.S. Air Force unit. During his visit, the American president also announced that Warsaw would form an integral part of the new anti-missile shield. In October 2010, the Polish Defence Minister declared that Poland would be very interested in having additional American soldiers based in Poland, as well as soldiers from other allied countries (10). It must be said that this is the best way of guaranteeing allied involvement in the event of an attack against the Polish territory, as well as representing a means of reinforcing bilateral relationships.
With this prospect in mind, defending the Polish soil is above all based on article 5 of the Atlantic Treaty (11), the fundamental aspect of an alliance whose main aim is the defence of its member states. As such, Poland, just like every other central European country, wishes to strengthen the relationship between NATO and the European Union. To do so, it needs to avoid opposing the Alliance and the Europe of Defence. Quite the contrary, it needs to associate the two in a “harmonious, complementary” manner. (12).
Strengthening the CSDP is part of this dual ambition. On the one hand, even if the investment made by Polish diplomacy in Europe is sometimes considered as the result of Polish attempts to distance itself from the United States - the limits of which were shown by the announcements made by Barack Obama last May -, it is more of a balancing act than a see-saw. On the other hand, Poland remains a deeply pro-Atlantic country, and sees the Europe of Defence as a complement to existing defence systems. The shift in American interests away from the European continent towards the Asian continent (and within the European continent, from West to East) is causing Polish authorities to question American guarantees as far as security is concerned. The United States nonetheless still acts as a vital counterbalance to Russia, and the Europe of Defence comes under the category of investments with hypothetical consequences.
An opportunity for Europeans
Whilst recent military operations have revealed the limits of European military tools, the commitment shown by the Weimar triangle countries forms a framework that could be used to breathe new life into defence-related cooperation. The intervention in Libya brought to light European capacity shortfalls, regarding the suppression of anti-aircraft defences and electronic warfare for instance, as well as illustrating the limits of programmes leading to production levels that are too low to be of any military or political effect. Consequently, within just a few days, the American air force and marines fired as many cruise missiles as the entire French programme. In Afghanistan, the situation is no better. The European states involved depend on the United States for transport (especially for heavy helicopters) and for information, and are having difficulty producing a significant result in the field with limited contingents (13). Although the combined effects of Polish initiatives and Franco-British rapprochement are institutionalising cooperation between the three Weimar triangle countries, there are several trends which could endanger the progress made so far. The three countries have very different schedules and geopolitical views, as shown by the Libyan intervention. Whereas Paris looks towards London and the Mediterranean, Berlin and Warsaw are more concerned by mutual defence within the framework of article 5. What is more, the Russian policies of Paris and Berlin are in danger of jeopardising the progress made in terms of European defence, as national interests are put before common interests.
Poland’s proclaimed commitment in favour of the Europe of Defence must be appreciated according to Polish foreign policy, its expectations and objectives, as well as NATO primacy. Although it does of course represent an opportunity for the Europe of Defence, it also demonstrates that the CSDP must not be regarded as the essential military dimension of a federalised whole in the generic sense, but as a tool allowing European countries to rationalise their military efforts and to act autonomously if they so wish, without claiming to override NATO (14). In the same way, in a Europe made up of groups of varying geometry, Polish initiatives must not be seen to be competing with community or bilateral logic, but as complementary to it. The choices made by Poland are indeed evidence of such pragmatism. In addition to investment within the Weimar triangle alongside the French and the Germans, which promotes the idea of an autonomous headquarters for European peace-keeping operations in particular, there is the signature of a “non paper” with the Belgians and the Hungarians on permanent structured cooperation and the progress made by the Lisbon treaty.
If Poland can put their proclaimed ambitions into practice, there will definitely be an opportunity to bring defence and security issues to the public’s attention and to closely involve Germany in the process. But given the shortcomings seen during recent operations and the threat of eroding military capacities of member States, the future of European capacity is a crucial part of this debate. Without capacity, there is little point in having headquarters, and the United States do not expect Europeans to have to rely on them for their defence.
(1) Speech made to the Sejm by Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radoslaw Sikorski on 8th April 2010. The four other priorities are energy security in the European Union, negotiations regarding the long-term financial basis, economic reflation on the domestic market and relationships with Eastern European countries.
(2) Nicolas Gros-Verheyde, “La défense, priorité très discrète de la présidence polonaise”, Bruxelles2blog, 3rd June 2011. http://www.bruxelles2.eu/defense-ue/defense-ue-droit-doctrine-politique/la-defense-priorite-tres-discrete-de-la-presidence-polonaise.html.
(3) The seminar is due to take place in Paris on 13th July, with the title “Mutualisation, partage et coopération : un défi sans alternative”. This is the closing seminar in the series.
(4) Roland Delawarde, “Who wants to be my friend?”, Revue Défense Nationale, no.738, March 2011, pp. 62-69, p. 64.
(5) Regarding past customs in the relationship between Germany and Poland, see Dorota Dakowska, “Les relations germano-polonaises. Les relectures du passé dans le contexte de l’adhésion à l’UE”, Pouvoirs, no.118, September 2006, pp. 125-136. More generally, refer to Valérie-Barbara Rosoux, Les usages de la mémoire dans les relations internationales. Le recours au passé dans la politique étrangère de la France à l’égard de l’Allemagne et de l’Algérie, de 1962 à nos jours, Brussels, Éditions Émile Bruylant, 2001.
(6) François Bafoil (dir.), La Pologne, Paris, Fayard-CERI, 2007, p. 470.
(7) As written by Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radoslaw Sikorski, taken from a diplomatic telegram exchanged with the Polish American embassy dated 12th December 2008.
(8) The anti-missile deployment system in Romania is to be located at the Deveselu base in the south of the country. It will be under Romanian control and should house between 200 and 500 American soldiers. From 2015 onwards, 24 new generation SM-3 missiles will be deployed there. In order to make transit easier for American troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, Bucharest has also made the port of Constanta and Kogalniceanu airport available to the United States.
(9) This declaration institutionalises political and military collaboration by establishing a consultative group.
(10) Bogdan Klich, as quoted by Stanislaw Parzymies, “Between Atlantism and Europism: the Polish strategic approach”, Revue Défense Nationale, no.737, February 2011, pp. 65-78, p. 71.
(11) Tomasz Orlowski, Polish ambassador in Paris, “Le point de vue polonais sur les perspectives de la défense européenne”, Défense, no.143, January-February 2010, p. 58.
(12) Stanislaw Parzymies, art. cit., p. 68.
(13) Speech made by Étienne de Durand (French Institute of International Relations) at a colloquium organised by the FRS on 11th May 2011.
(14) On the same topic, see in particular Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, “From the Alliance to Europe: geopolitics for the entire Euro-Atlantic region”, Institut Thomas More note dated 16th November 2010. http://www.institut-thomas-more.org/en/actualite/from-the-alliance-to-europe-geopolitics-for-the-entire-euro-atlantic-regio2.html
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