Friday, March 18, 2005

It doesn't make sense

It seemed such a good idea at the time – to set up a blog analysing and commenting on EU affairs, trying to make sense of what is happening for the better information of those who will eventually cast their vote in the EU referendum.

"Trying", in the context of making sense of what is happening, however, turns out to be the operative word which, currently, has to be followed by the qualifier "…and failing". A sense of panic now pervades one tries to make some sense of things that seem to make no sense at all.

Take for instance, a piece offered by the Scotsman website this morning which informs us that EU defence ministers are holding talks today aiming to halve the time it takes to send elite battle groups to international trouble spots.

EU officials, we are told, want to secure backing from ministers to ensure the 1,500-strong rapid response units "which the EU is setting up to snuff out potential crises can be ready to deploy within five days of the bloc deciding to launch a mission."

All this sounds nice a cosy except that one of the only operative groups, of 13 which EU member states agreed to set up in November is led by Britain, which has undertaken to provide to troops and other military assets to turn the ambition into reality.

Yet, was it only yesterday that we read in The Daily Telegraph a report of the recent findings of the Commons Defence Select Committee headed: “Defence cuts 'put country at risk'” by instigating cuts in the number of aircraft, ships and infantry battalions which have created “major capability gaps”

Every service has left with only "just enough" equipment and personnel and in some cases too little, says the committee, which adds that "It may take another decade before the capabilities to deliver those requirements are in place. In the meantime, equipment withdrawals and personnel reductions may leave gaps in capability. Those gaps, in turn, may create risks. Some of those risks, in our view, need not have been taken."

Even then, that is an optimistic view as the new capabilities are tied up, on the one hand, with the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) for the Army, the carrier programme for the Royal Navy, plus deliveries of the US-built Joint Strike Fighter, and – for the Royal Air Force – trouble-free delivery of "tranche 2" Eurofighters equipped for the ground attack role.

FRES, which was initially supposed to be operational by 2010, now has no completion date attached to it, and the concept specifications have not even been decided, much less translated into a development phase. The aircraft carrier project is totally bogged down, the fate of the JSF project is uncertain, and – given the chequered history of the Eurofighter project – anyone who sets any reliance on deliveries or performance – needs their head examined.

In other words, the UK – which is the most capable (or was) of the forces – does not have the capability to deliver on existing commitments, and here we find “EU defence ministers” blithely meeting to talk about increasing their commitments to the EU’s rapid reaction force.

This gets even more surreal when one reads of the utter shambles taking place in Italy, where the Italian government last October, in a great show of pomp and ceremony, signed a contract with France, jointly to build 27 frigates, grandly known as the Frégate Européene Multi-Mission (FREMM).

Now, we find – according to DefenseNews - that the Italian government has made no financial provision for the ships (each of which cost €350 million) in its defence budget, and is at the point of reneging on its commitment unless it can borrow the money at short notice from commercial banks.

This is the country, incidentally, that is selling off Army barracks to meet a €1.2 billion shortfall of current account commitments on its defence budget.

This is but a tiny snapshot of the situation throughout Europe, where the rhetoric and ambitions of the "colleagues" are consistently failing to match the reality that, if you want to be a military power, you actually have to commit to spending very large sums of money.

What is happening at the moment, therefore, does not make sense. All we can do here, therefore, is to record this and take the advice that we gave to one of our readers – that trying to make sense of something where there is none is the surest path to madness.

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