In his recent confirmation hearing in the European Parliament, the new EU foreign policy chief and Spanish socialist politician, Josep Borrell spoke of the security threats to the EU.
He said that the rules based international order was being threatened by a logic of power politics. He added that recent unilateral moves by the US that “go against decades of cooperation” with Europe.
He said that, collectively, EU states spend more on defence than China does, but do not get value for money from it because of fragmentation and duplication.
There is no sign that the international tensions to which he was referring will ease in the near future. China has become more assertive, the Iran nuclear deal has been undermined and the United States is putting in doubt the security umbrella under which Europe has prospered for the past seventy years.
So inevitably, out of financial and political necessity, the next five years will be marked by increased activity and debate in the European Union about defence and security. This is unavoidable.
Defence is already provided for in the EU Treaties, which say that common security and defence policy shall be an integral part of the common foreign policy of the EU.
The Treaty says that EU members shall have an obligation of “aid and assistance by all means in their power” to any other member state which is attacked.
But there is an exception to this obligation for Ireland, because the Treaty adds that this commitment is not to prejudice “the specific character of the defence policy of certain member states” ie. military neutrality in the case of Ireland.
But what is the “specific character” of Irish defence policy?
Irish defence policy was defined, in a recent publication by Patrick Keatinge for the IIEA, as
“non membership of a military alliance and non participation in mutual defence.”
In a sense, it is defined by what it is NOT, rather than by what it is.
That seems to be something with which Irish public opinion is content.
But it may not be enough, if the world becomes more unstable because of great power rivalry, or following the breakdown of the rules based international order. This needs to be thought through.
Ireland’s present policy is to await a resolution of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to validate any overseas mission involving Irish forces. This gives disproportionate influence to the “veto powers” on the UNSC. Beijing or Moscow could veto any Irish overseas military mission if they decline to support the relevant UNSC resolution. This impinges on Irish sovereignty.
Ireland’s unwillingness to take part in any alliance, or mutual defence commitment, means that the Irish state takes on full responsibility for, and must bear alone the full cost of, all aspects of the defence of our territory and of the seas around it.
In the past, the fact that Ireland is an island meant that we were difficult to attack. This was important in the Second World War.
But our island status would no defence against cyber attacks, and actually makes Ireland MORE vulnerable to the disruption of electricity, gas and telecommunications services from overseas, services without which modern Irish life would become unliveable.
Good relations with the UK are of vital importance. It is the only country with whom we have a land boundary.
Were relations to deteriorate either between Ireland and the UK, or between the EU and the UK in the military sphere, Ireland would be vulnerable. This is unlikely, but not impossible. The Brexit process could become highly fractious and leave lasting wounds.
Military neutrality has been invested, in the minds of many Irish people, with an emotional content.
Rather than being seen as a tactical and practical matter, and thus subject to adjustment in certain contingencies, it has been made part of our national identity, and put outside the realm of pragmatic discussion.
As long North Western Europe remains politically stable, this approach is not an issue of much practical consequence. We can afford it. And it is convenient.
But, if as a result of the forces unleashed by Brexit, the security situation in this part of the world were to change, and that could happen quickly, Irish defence policy would have to be re examined.
Future warfare will focus on the disruption of supply chains, rather than directly on human casualties.
Over the past 70 years, Ireland has built its economy on the basis in intimate involvement in global supply chains, supply chains of goods, of power, and of data. This is what “Global Ireland” means.
If we decline any mutual commitment with other nations, we take on the full responsibility to protect these supply chains, in and out of Ireland, ourselves.
But we can use our membership of the EU to exercise that responsibility in an effective way.
We can and must learn from the work of others and, on a case by case basis, take part in joint initiatives in areas like
- secure software design,
- threat intelligence,
- maritime surveillance,
the protection of telecoms, electricity and gas pipelines and
Ireland must take a positive and proactive approach. We have considerable expertise in this country in the technologies that would be relevant to these defensive tasks. But we cannot do all the necessary R and D on our own. So we must work with our EU partners to protect ourselves against all contingencies (even the apparently unlikely ones!).