Estonia speaks up

  • 2012-08-08

Estonian Foreign Minister Umas Paet said in Brussels on July 25 that the European Union should develop a rapid-response military capability and that Estonia was planning to commit forces to the Nordic Battle Group in 2015. The European Union has created a series of battle groups designed to implement EU defense policies. The Nordic Battle Group is one of these; it counts on the contributions of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Ireland and Estonia.  

Most of these battle groups are still in the process of formation - they are fairly small and not always geographically or organizationally coherent. Only about 2,000 troops are committed to the Nordic Battle Group. Norway, which has not entered the European Union, has opted into the group while Ireland, which is not geographically Nordic, has also chosen to participate. Denmark, meanwhile, has opted out of the EU defense structure despite the country’s EU membership. The Nordic Group is an odd mix, but it represents an effort by the European Union to form not only a coherent foreign policy, but also a defense program to back it up.

The European Union has yet to succeed in this effort. Member states have retained their own autonomous foreign and defense policies and have maintained commitments to NATO that in some ways compete with EU priorities. But the financial crisis has rendered much of this discussion moot. With many EU members slashing defense budgets, the battle groups are unlikely to achieve anything beyond symbolic military significance.

Most European countries do not appear particularly concerned, but Estonia is. The country sits on the edge of NATO and the European Union, and to its east must deal with a historical threat. Whether Russia poses a meaningful threat to Estonia and the other Baltic countries can be debated, but the Baltic countries’ mistrust of Russian intentions based on historical experience cannot. The presence of substantial Russian-speaking populations within these countries raises the concern of potential unrest.

This concern is what drives the Estonians to address the topic of a European rapid-response force - a question few EU countries care to face now. Such forces are expensive; they combine the combat force and its equipment and supplies with transport capability and often air support. The United States has such forces; the Europeans don’t. When the French and Italians wanted to intervene in Libya, they had to request and rely on a range of U.S. capabilities, from command and control aircraft to logistics. The European Union, which collectively has a larger economy than that of the United States, has a fraction of U.S. military capability and little ability to rapidly respond to a crisis.

The Estonians see themselves as not only exposed, but also the most likely member of the European Union and NATO - along with Latvia and Lithuania - to face a serious crisis requiring a military response. Should an Estonian response to eventual unrest among the country’s Russian minority cause Moscow to signal its unhappiness, Estonia would need rapid assistance from the European Union. The Nordic Battle Group could not supply that, nor could NATO.

At a time when the European Union is preoccupied with the financial crisis, which in many ways is an existential threat, such scenarios look like Cold War fantasies to many European leaders. But for the Estonians the threat is one that demands a plan for a response. The European Union provides the Baltics with little possibility of military support. NATO, with its drawdown of European forces, can support Estonia only if the United States is prepared to lead a coalition.
The Estonian decision to raise an issue no one in Brussels wants to discuss points to another fault line running through the EU, and one that is insufficiently discussed. The European Union, a multinational entity, has not provided the national security dimension that a multinational state requires. While the value of membership in the EU is debated from an economic standpoint, the question of national security in the EU context has never been clarified.

Europe sought through the European Union to craft a strategic self-sufficiency it never had. Because NATO is operational only when the United States takes the lead, looking at European fragmentation brings to mind minor, but not insignificant, questions for countries like Estonia that feel insecure: Do such countries need a special relationship with the United States? Would that relationship be compatible with obligations to the European Union? And is the United States interested in creating such relationships?

Estonia is a small country whose voice is rarely heard by its European partners. But it has brought attention to the question of national security, a serious potential challenge to the European Union.

Reprinted with permission from Stratfor