Wednesday, February 16, 2005

A parting of the ways

For someone who is supposed to be a civil servant, running an obscure technical agency, Nick Witney is seems to be taking upon himself a rather high profile political role.

Not a name with which many will be familiar, Nick Witney, formerly a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Defence, is now the chief executive of the newly formed European Defence Agency, charged (in theory) with assisting EU member states in making procurement decisions.

From the very start, however, he has been making statements that have profound policy implications which seem to be well beyond his narrow brief.

This we identified on our Blog in late January when Witney made a barely-reported speech on "collective decision-making" and the need to move away from procurement programmes "formulated on a solely national basis".

Now Witney is back in the fray, speaking at a conference on defence in Madrid, declaring that Europe suffers from an “embarrassing gap” between its aspirations for a leading defence role on the world stage and its limited military strength.

In style and with an apparent authority more akin to what one might expect from the secretary general of Nato, Witney repeated his earlier theme, saying that European countries must make more joint decisions on what to do with the 160 billion euros ($208 billion) they spend annually on defense if they are to close that gap.

"We are still, between us, spending too much money on the wrong things and not enough money on the right things," he said. "We struggle to sustain even the relatively modest burdens of the operations with which we are engaged. There is an embarrassing gap between Europe's ambitions for its role in the world and its actual capability to deliver militarily."

This is from the head of an agency with 77 staff and an annual budget of just 20 million euros, which has only been in operation six weeks. Yet Witney sees himself as a "catalyst" for member states to take more common decisions, promising to take "a leading role" in proposing new policy approaches on how a European defence equipment market might work and how it might be brought into being.

His greatest worry is that the US is spending about two and a half times more on defence than European countries combined, and five times more on defence research and technology. "In matters of technology I think Europe is engaged in competition with America," he adds.

That is our greatest worry. The talk is not of co-operation with the US, through Nato – which gets no mention from Witney – but of "competition". On the back of Schröder's recent statement in Munich, that Nato risked becoming outdated and was "no longer the primary venue where transatlantic partners discuss and co-ordinate strategies", this is yet more evidence of the growing emergence of a separate European "defence identity".

We are definitely seeing here a parting of the ways.

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