The EU, militarism and Ireland

The story of the European Union and militarism goes back as far as 1955 when the Western European Union (WEU) was formed. This was the main avenue for joint European security efforts and was closely tied to NATO. In particular it allowed the integration of the West German armed forces into NATO and, after France had pulled out of NATO's command structure in 1958, it provided a bridge between the French military and its allies in NATO.

In 1984 the WEU was reactivated with an agreement, signed in Rome, to work towards a gradual harmonisation of members security policies. Although it had never put a soldier in the field, it did provide a framework for joint military operations between EU states, for example Anglo-French co-operation on nuclear weapons. 11 of the 15 member states of the EU are part of NATO and the membership of the WEU is identical except for the fact that Denmark chose not to join. In addition to the 10 members there are 6 associate members who are also members of NATO. The WEU is, in essence, the regional European co-ordination of the NATO military alliance. Ireland never joined NATO or the WEU and this has been one of the major ways in which the Irish government has been able to claim that it is a 'neutral' state and does not belong to any of the international military alliances.


Most Irish people seem to agree that neutrality is a good thing, and certainly in the run up to the Nice Treaty, the government is at pains to emphasise that this treaty does not in any way affect our neutrality. After the Nice treaty was rejected the first time, the one concession that the Irish government offered to their electorate is a declaration reaffirming Irish neutrality, agreed by the June 2002 EU summit in Seville. "Ireland confirms that its participation in the European Union's common foreign and security policy does not prejudice its traditional policy of military neutrality"[*1]. It seems that the government figured that fear of our neutrality being prejudiced was what had caused the Irish people to reject the treaty of Nice in 2001.

But why are the Irish attached to this neutrality? Since we were hardly going to join the Warsaw pact, why didn't we join NATO in case we were attacked? After all the NATO alliance is supposedly a defence agreement, a commitment to help each other out if the member nations are attacked by a foreign enemy. Is it just Irish isolationism? Are we selfish and content to let others protect us, pay for our security and leave us with a feeling of moral superiority while they do all the work?


In fact the Irish peoples' suspicion of these defence agreements rests on much more valid foundations. NATO, was originally conceived as an alliance to protect the Western democracies against any invasion by the Soviet block during the cold war, however none of the 19 member nations of NATO have ever been subject to attack by a foreign army [*3] since they have been a member. Indeed, even during the cold war, NATO and its various offshoots had almost nothing to do with common defence; instead it acted as the military arm of the powerful Western nations. The list of NATO interventions hardly reads as a glorious history: Vietnam, Algeria, Suez, Bosnia, Iraq, and Kosovo. The common thread has been that NATO interventions involve military forces from wealthy parts of the world fighting with a massive technical advantage against impoverished groups in the third world. Humanitarian reasons have been used as justifications in most of these wars, and anti-communism used to be very common until anti-terrorism took over, but they all still ended up with a whole load of hi-explosives being sprayed around the third world.

NATO is the military alliance of the major ex-colonial powers and many of its interventions in the 20th century were in opposition to National Liberation struggles in the third world. NATO support was crucial to the wars against national liberation movements waged by the impoverished Portuguese dictatorship in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea Bissau during the 1960's and 70's. NATO allies supplied 33 military vessels, almost a third of Portugal's fleet [*2]. The concept of the 'defence pact' was stretched to allow NATO planes to firebomb peasant villages in the African interior. The 1962 NATO secretary general explained the motivations for their intervention in saying: "The Portuguese soldiers are defending a territory, raw materials and bases which are indispensable not only to the defence of Europe, but also to the whole of the Western world"*[3]. It is clear from this and indeed virtually every NATO action before and since, that the alliance acts in the self-interest of the 'Western world'. It has nothing to do with defence of the countries involved, rather it exists to maintain and enforce the global order between the strong and the weak. NATO and its various appendages exist to police the world for the powerful nations and their corporations, to wreak death and destruction wherever there is a threat to the extreme inequality that is the hallmark of the capitalist world. Given the Irish history of colonisation and imperial exploitation, it is no surprise that Irish people want little to do with alliances like this.

NATO by stealth

However, our government has been slowly edging us towards effective membership of the imperial NATO alliance. Since the state's inception, despite Ireland's constitutional neutrality, the government has, wherever possible, provided assistance to our powerful military neighbours. Since the idea of neutrality has always been popular in Ireland, the government has generally achieved this by stealth. Many Irish people know little of the extent of Irish assistance to the military forces in NATO countries. From supplying radar information to the British military, to allowing the French nuclear submarine radar station to be established in Ireland, the government has assisted NATO without the merest hint of debate.

In 1999 Ireland joined NATO's 'partnership for peace'. "Partnership for Peace (PfP) is the basis for practical security co-operation between NATO and individual Partner countries (19+1). Activities include defence planning and budgeting, training and civil emergency operations."[*4] Fianna Fail brought Ireland into this partnership without any consultation with the people, despite their pledge in their previous election manifesto (1997): "we oppose Irish participation in NATO itself [and] in NATO-led organisations such as the Partnership for Peace [*5]." Recent European treaties, signed by the Irish government, have gone further to bring us into the mainstream of the European branch of NATO. European security after the cold war

With the end of the cold war, the European powers started to feel the need for a more powerful local military co-operation. The WEU was limited since it had no forces of its own and its actions were limited to co-operation between the various national military structures, under their separate commands, often bedevilled by petty rivalries and ancient animosities. NATO remained the only body capable of turning out a military force under a unified international command structure. However, due to its domination by the US military, and its inclusion of non-EU countries such as Turkey, it was an unwieldy tool for carrying out military action in the interests of the EU states. The US not only monopolises the command structure; it also provides the bulk of the troops and finances to NATO. Thus, in situations where EU commercial interests are threatened, NATO is obviously not an ideal tool, since the American military would obviously not be overly keen to deploy troops and finances around the globe if US commercial interests were not at stake. Therefore, from the early 1990's on, the EU started to take steps to establish a local military force, more a local European branch of NATO than a rival; an army that the EU states could put in the field without having to prove that the expenditure of capital and manpower made sense from a US point of view.


Thus, in 1991, the European Union resolved to create a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) as part of the Maastricht Treaty. This laid the groundwork for the creation of Eurocorps, consisting of 50,000 troops from 5 countries. This force remained purely symbolic since it consisted of the same national troops that were formally committed to NATO. However, it did set in motion the process whereby the EU powers could start to move towards a situation where they could deploy troops as a regional branch of NATO, without having to utilise the entire machinery of the broad NATO alliance. Although the CFSP was initially dominated by the French and Germans, it took an important step forward in 1998 with the signing of an agreement in St. Malo. London and Paris declared that the EU "must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible forces, the means to decide to use them and a readiness to do so in order to respond to international crises." What this meant in practice was that the European NATO states now had an agreed way to embark on collective military interventions without having to get the Americans to agree to lead and finance the action. Since the CFSP was an EU policy, it also meant that countries who were not NATO members were committed to providing finances and manpower to a force that would operate within the NATO planning and decision making structures, i.e. under NATO's overall command. Although the Danes were exempted from this clause of Maastricht after an electoral revolt, it passed almost without notice in Ireland.

Rapid Reaction Force

The shifting of military responsibilities, from the WEU to the EU itself continued when the EU agreed, at Cologne in June 1999, to take over the crisis management role of the WEU. The fact that the recently retired NATO Secretary General Javier Solana was given the job of High Representative for the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy illustrates how independent of NATO the EU's military policy was likely to be. This agreement led to the commitment, announced in November 2000, to create a European "Rapid Reaction Force" by 2003. The RPF is to be a force capable of deploying 60,000 EU troops within 60 days, for 'crisis-management' operations thousands of miles from home, under the political control of the EU. The Irish government pledged 7.4% of the Irish armed forces - the third highest proportion of any EU country - as well as agreeing to financial and support commitments. Even though the force is nominally independent of NATO political control (albeit with Solana at the helm), it will operate within NATO's overall strategic and planning framework for the foreseeable future.

A rival to NATO?

It is worth noting that the emergence of the CFSP and the Rapid Reaction Force has not been in opposition to the US dominated NATO alliance, indeed some of its most vocal backers have come from within the upper echelons of NATO and the US military. To put it simply, the US wants the other major Western powers to pay for more of the military invasions that are necessary to keep the wheels of global capitalism turning. The Europeans have gone along with the US desires; for example they have contributed $200 million to the US plan Colombia, which is financing the Colombian states war against the rural poor. However there have been some disagreements between the European NATO powers and their American mentor. In particular the French desire to give the European military alliance the capacity to act autonomously of the NATO alliance, while the Americans desire to see it as a regional grouping remaining entirely within NATO's planning structure. This dispute has focused on what appears at first glance to be an obscure bureaucratic point; whether or not the EU force and NATO would share the NATO planning staff. If it did, then a US veto would be implicit. If not then the EU powers could potentially take steps that would be contrary to American wishes. To put it simply, the Americans want the Europeans to provide the manpower and finances for NATO operations that are taken at the behest of the EU countries, while the French say that 'if we are paying for it, we get to decide what we can do'. Still, this is really a moot point, at least in the immediate future. The European powers don't have the military forces, the strategic and planning capabilities, or the defence budgets to allow them to go it alone against US wishes. Indeed, rather than expressing fear of EU military build-up, the US has repeatedly promoted increased defence spending on the part of EU states and chastised them for the low proportion of their budgets spent on weapons. To sum US strategic thinking: "An EU force that serves as an effective, if unofficial, extension of NATO rather than a substitute is well worth the trouble."[*6]

During the war on Iraq the central role Ireland is playing is supporting global military operations was seen at Shannon airport. Hundreds of thousands of US troops have flown to and from Iraq via Shannon during the war and occupation. An unknown quantity of US military cargo has also been flown through Shannon. The government may have been claiming to be 'anti-war' and 'pro-neutrality' throughout this period but in order to keep Shannon open for military refuelling they arrested over 60 anti war protestors and mobilised hundreds of riot police.

Nice Treaty

The Nice treaty brought us another slow step down the path of EU military integration and in particular, the transferral of responsibility for military matters from the WEU to the EU. The Nice treaty included an amendment to Article 17 of the Treaty of Europe. Pre-Nice the article included the following in paragraph 1:

"The Western European Union (WEU) is an integral part of the development of the Union providing the Union with access to an operational capability notably in the context of paragraph 2. It supports the Union in framing the defence aspects of the common foreign and security policy as set out in this Article. The Union shall accordingly foster closer institutional relations with the WEU with a view to the possibility of the integration of the WEU into the Union,"

This passage has been deleted as part of the Nice treaty, probably because the integration has been achieved! The EU now assumes formal responsibility for 'operation capability notably in the context of paragraph 2'. This refers to "humanitarian and rescue tasks, peace keeping tasks and tasks of combat forces in crisis management, including peacemaking." The other mention of the WEU in the Treaty of Europe, in Article 17, paragraph 3: "The Union will avail itself of the WEU to elaborate and implement decisions and actions of the Union which have defence implications", is also deleted.

The EU becomes the official military alliance of Western Europe and Ireland's neutrality became utterly meaningless. Ireland is part of an EU military alliance which will serve as NATO's European arm. The responsibilities of this agreement are broad enough to cover any conceivable type of military action. Peacemaking is a particularly vague term. It means making peace where there is war by the use of military force - best achieved by winning the war! Given the sorry history of NATO's interventions in the past and the political realities of the global power order, it is all too likely that 'peacemaking' will mean aerial bombardments and military invasions of poor countries by the armies of the wealthy, all in the 'national interest' of the powerful states.

To sum up, the EU nations are slowly moving towards a greater integration of their military forces, particularly in terms of their operations within the NATO alliance. These operations have the effect of inflicting massive damages on poor regions of the globe and serve to reinforce the inequality of the global power order. Important steps along this path have been the agreement of the CFSD in 1991 and the creation of the Rapid Reaction Force. One of the important steps is the integration of the non-NATO EU states into the military alliance.

Neutrality is no longer the issue in Ireland. As the Iraq war showed we are no longer neutral in any meaningful sense. We are involved in the European and US military machines. Those opposed to war need to shift from the traditional ground of defending national neutrality to being part of a European and global movement against militarisation.

Based on an article written by Chekov Feeney in Sept 2002


[*1] Declaration of the Seville summit of the EU

[*2] Portugal's African Wars, p38, Humbaraci & Muchnik, TPH, Dar es Salaam1974

[*3] Ibid p.176

[*4] Partnership for Peace introduction,

[*5] Fianna Fail, 1997 general election manifesto

[*6] Europe's Rapid Reaction Force: What, Why, And How. William Anthony Hay and Harvey Sicherman, Foreign Policy Research Institute, February 2001

This text is from the pamphlet 'Whats wrong with the EU'.

You can read the rest of the pamphlet online or you can download and print out the PDF version

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