European Defence Cooperation: sovereignty and the capacity to act

April 12, 2012 - nr.78

Conclusions and recommendations

The AIV emphasises that the need for European defence cooperation is greater than ever. The latest round of severe cuts in defence expenditure in numerous European countries means that there is once again a real possibility that substantial military capability will be lost. At the same time, the NATO operation in Libya has demonstrated that there are still essential military shortfalls in Europe. These shortfalls concern, among other things, the capacity to identify enemy targets and eliminate them with great accuracy and to carry out in-flight refuelling of fighter aircraft. The Libya operation has in this respect shown how dependent Europe still is on the United States. The AIV views this dependence as a problem since the United States appears to be focusing more and more on Asia and is assuming that Europe will be increasingly capable of standing on its own two feet. It can no longer be taken for granted that the United States will provide military assistance to European countries in future crisis situations which are not covered by article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and in which its interests are affected only indirectly, if at all. This is why the European countries must set about in earnest enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of their military capabilities. There is also every reason for this because their joint defence output is lacking in terms of their capacity to deploy a substantial force in conflict areas outside Europe.

The AIV believes that the military output per euro spent on defence is too low when viewed in the light of total European defence expenditure. European armed forces have insufficient combat troops capable of rapid deployment and overhead costs are relatively high. A comparative survey by McKinsey & Company of the so-called toothto- tail ratio of 33 armed forces shows that the Dutch armed forces perform better in terms of effectiveness than most of their European allies.1 As a substantial increase in defence budgets is unlikely in the near future, there is only one alternative: eliminate military surpluses within Europe wherever possible, arrange for joint procurement and maintenance of materiel, establish joint training courses, pool and share existing military capabilities with other countries to maximise use, and also exchange and allocate capabilities in the context of operational cooperation (specialisation). Only in this way can the harmful effects of the current spending cuts be limited and resources made available to fill critical gaps in European defence capability. If this does not happen, the credibility of Dutch and European ambitions to play a significant role in Europe and the surrounding region will be impaired still further. It should be noted that the AIV recognises that as long as the responsibility for defence remains a primarily national matter there will be red lines regarding the extent to which European defence can be rationalised and enhanced. A common European defence will remain a distant speck on the horizon as long as European countries demonstrate insufficient unity in terms of their foreign policies. Without a common foreign policy there can be no common defence.

Turning to the Netherlands in particular, the AIV notes that, in view of the present size of its armed forces the practical significance of and hence the social justification for its defence effort are now dependent more than ever on capitalising on opportunities for international cooperation, especially with its European partners. In other words, the position of the Dutch armed forces as an independent organisation is largely determined by their value in partnerships with other countries. This idea forms the basis for the following policy recommendations for a coherent approach to the expansion and further deepening of European defence cooperation.

Defence cooperation framework: implications for national sovereignty
The government is interested first of all in the question of how various forms of defence cooperation relate to the national sovereignty of the countries involved. The AIV notes that contemporary thinking on the concept of sovereignty places much less emphasis on a strictly legal approach to the preservation of the state’s exclusive power of decision – freedom of action – and much more on the capacity of the state to act by cooperating effectively in international forums and to participate with authority in international contexts. For the Netherlands this means that only through participation in bilateral and multilateral configurations and through structured European cooperation can international influence and military effectiveness be maintained. From this perspective the importance of shared European sovereignty is in reality greater than that of (unshared) national sovereignty. The AIV concludes that the freedom to act (i.e. sovereignty in a traditional sense) is limited only in the case of certain forms of operational cooperation and in role and task specialisation. A careful consideration of the choice of countries with which and the conditions under which close operational cooperation or a form of specialisation is entered into is required in such cases.

Besides having major advantages, bilateral and multilateral defence cooperation also entails obligations and dependences. For example, the placing of national defence capabilities in a multinational pool creates obligations towards partners for the upkeep and maintenance of the capability. Furthermore, there are limitations on the extent to which a country can have free access to its own capability in a multinational pool. The problem of these limitations can be overcome by means of an agreement about the principle of a ‘red card holder’, which gives a country the possibility of demanding its own capability for national operations in exceptional situations. Such an arrangement was agreed, for example, when the EATC was established.

By taking part in the pooling of scarce airlift capability in the EATC and participating in the SAC/C-17 initiative, the Netherlands has reduced its dependence on external providers of airlift capability for the movement of military materiel to and from theatres of operations. Pooling and sharing capabilities enables a country to strengthen combined military capability while maintaining the autonomous control over the deployment of its own armed forces, and thus makes it easier for countries to participate in a military operation if they desire.

In the case of integrated operational cooperation, the mutual dependence of the partners greatly increases because successful cooperation is dependent on reaching agreement on the political desirability and military feasibility of joint deployment in a given situation. At the same time, this form of cooperation also has major advantages, particularly if the partners have similar materiel. Although an ultimate escape clause can be included when a treaty on integrated operational cooperation is concluded, the freedom of choice of the participating partners will be limited in practice. The following factors should be considered when deciding whether to enter into integrated operational cooperation with a particular country:

  • the political decision-making process and the role of parliament;
  • the strategic culture in the sense of the prevailing views on the deployment of the military in order to achieve security aims;
  • the political willingness to share risks;
  • the risk profile in the event of deployment, determined not just by the nature of the mission but above all by the type of deployment (ground, air or maritime operations) and the level at which the deployment takes place. Deployment of ground forces at a low tactical level has the highest risk profile.

The most far-reaching form of dependence between partners occurs in the case of role and task specialisation. Although the AIV considers that this option should not be taboo, it also believes that, before the Netherlands agrees to any such specialisation by the conclusion of bilateral or multilateral agreements, two conditions must be met: a similar strategic culture and ample operational experience with the partner or partners. Careful consideration should also be given to the advantages of specialisation and the division of tasks and the possible disadvantage of curtailing national autonomy or freedom of action. The AIV refers in this connection to the possibility of making further agreements with Belgium about a division of coastguard duties, mine countermeasure operations and protection of the airspace between the two countries. In the AIV’s opinion, this would not cause any unacceptable loss of sovereignty.

The AIV points out that in the past, during the Cold War, the security of the Netherlands was highly dependent on decisions taken by the American government. The United States was, after all, the strategic guarantor of security in Europe. The fear in our part of the world was not of being entrapped against our will in an armed conflict but of being abandoned by the Americans.2 To defend Europe the United States risked the destruction – by nuclear or other means – of its own people. The Netherlands, like the other allies, had little influence over American decisions, particularly as regards the possible use of nuclear weapons. Although the Dutch troops assigned to NATO were under national control in peacetime, the decision to put them fully under NATO command in the event of application of article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty following a surprise enemy attack would be dictated entirely by circumstances. From the moment that the Netherlands started participating in the integrated defence of the Alliance, it was foreseeable that Dutch sovereignty would be considerably curtailed, if not formally in any event in practice, by its dependence on the United States.

However, the security context in which the issue of sovereignty should now be placed has changed radically. The semi-automatic obligation to provide assistance under article 5 is now overshadowed by the voluntary participation in non-article 5, out-ofarea crisis management operations and the fear of abandonment has been replaced by the fear of entrapment. Another change is the assertiveness displayed by the House of Representatives in respect of all matters connected with the deployment of Dutch military personnel. This has resulted, for example, in the formulation of a Frame of Reference for the participation of Dutch military units in international crisis management operations.3 In many other European countries too, there is growing parliamentary involvement in the matter of the deployment of troops. This new reality has resulted in a provisional definition of the boundaries of international defence cooperation: most European countries wish to retain the possibility of deploying units involved in cooperation arrangements as independent modules in international operations, irrespective of whether the countries with which they closely cooperate are taking part in such operations. A good example is the navy cooperation between the Netherlands and Belgium in the Admiral Benelux operational headquarters, which enables both countries to participate entirely separately in international military operations.

In the future, however, partners may conceivably become so dependent on one another’s military capabilities that they cannot participate effectively in military operations without the active cooperation of the partners. The AIV believes that in such a situation the danger of paralysis where certain countries decide not to become involved in a proposed mission outweighs the danger of loss of national sovereignty in the sense of autonomous control. In the intergovernmental decision-making process characteristic of both NATO and the EU, member states cannot, after all, be compelled to cooperate in implementing majority decisions. Moreover, it is hard to imagine that critical and vigilant national parliaments such as the Dutch parliament would endorse participation in military operations simply because other countries have become dependent on their country’s military capabilities and exert political pressure to make these available; especially with regard to high risk military action involving ground forces at a low tactical level. In such circumstances, troops face the greatest dangers. Often the decisive factor for national parliaments in determining whether or not to agree to a mission is the risks that military personnel run in the event of a joint deployment with troops of another country.

Lessons from international programmes and processes
After the Cold War, NATO and the EU embarked on a process of transformation that would shift the focus to expeditionary operations. Hitherto, however, the capability programmes established by NATO and the EU have produced only limited results. Accordingly, the potential for further cooperation has by no means been exhausted. Entrenched national interests, primarily in national defence industries, and differences in politico-strategic culture have proved to be major obstacles to the full utilisation of this potential. In the case of NATO, the capabilities initiatives have concentrated mainly on the joint leasing and pooling of strategic airlift and sealift capability and logistical support for out-of-area operations. The NATO Maintenance and Supply Agency (NAMSA) has helped to make substantial savings by coordinating as far as possible the logistic support provided for expeditionary operations for participating countries. Within the framework of the EU, the European Defence Agency (EDA) acts as the driving force behind joint programmes and projects. A series of smaller projects have been carried out within the EDA. The most tangible result has been a joint training programme for helicopter pilots, which was in fact established in consultation with NATO. Owing in part to its modest budget, however, the Agency has not yet been able to achieve any real breakthroughs in military capability cooperation. Unfortunately, EU member states take different views on the appropriate level of control to be exercised by the Agency.

In practice, another way of deepening defence cooperation has been found to be through regional partnerships or clusters of like-minded countries. This applies, for example, both to cooperation between the Scandinavian countries (in NORDEFCO) and to the cooperation of the Netherlands with Belgium/Luxembourg and Germany. However, the cluster approach also has limitations and drawbacks. An obvious limitation is that the desired deepening of cooperation in the area of strategic intelligence, communication and command falls outside the remit of the clusters. Deepening of this kind can be achieved only within the framework of NATO and the EU. A disadvantage of the cluster approach is the risk that these cooperation programmes may become disconnected from the real capability needs of all European countries together. After all, European surpluses exist in some fields, but large shortfalls in others.

The AIV considers it is essential for European capability shortfalls to be identified with a view to jointly setting defence expenditure priorities for NATO and EU member states in order to redress the existing imbalanced configuration of military capabilities. The failure to set joint priorities has also been apparent in the case of the plans for defence spending cuts recently drawn up by European governments, including the Dutch government. Moreover, the varied timing of these national plans is an extra complication. No top-down coordination mechanism exists for monitoring the total expeditionary capabilities of the European armed forces. Extraordinary ministerial conferences within the EU, as already proposed by the Netherlands, could remedy this deficiency. It would be logical for the EDA to play a supporting role in implementing this coordination.

An important lesson is that the most effective strategy for military cooperation starts with joint procurement and maintenance of materiel, combined with joint training of personnel. However, a certain amount of resistance to such cooperation must still be overcome, for example within national defence industries and among those responsible for military defence planning. Materiel cooperation places few if any constraints on the independent deployment of military units. Once the parties concerned have gained positive experience of such cooperation and become convinced of the desirability of making further progress, steps can be taken to achieve more far-reaching operational cooperation, resulting ultimately in the exchange and division of military capabilities. This is somewhat analogous to the process of European integration as a whole: the result of a strategy of taking successive small steps to expand and deepen cooperation.

The aim of international defence cooperation is not only to increase the output of the joint defence budgets in terms of capabilities but also to maximise the effectiveness of action taken during missions. The development of operational concepts and joint training are indispensable in this connection. In future hybrid military conflicts, the success of the action taken by multinational units will be determined above all by their ability to operate in a complex civil-military environment. Also important is their ability to adapt and the speed of their response to new security risks. This adaptability will have to extend over a broad area including joint materiel procurement procedures, educationand training concepts, and the defence industries.

Cooperation possibilities in the future
The Netherlands is regarded in Europe as a pioneer of defence cooperation with other countries. The Benesam model can serve as a shining example to other countries. Nonetheless, the AIV is convinced that numerous possibilities still remain unused even by the Netherlands. The emphasis of Dutch defence cooperation is on relations with the Benelux partners and Germany. Although a deepening of military cooperation with these countries is desirable, it should be accompanied by an intensification of security policy cooperation. In addition, the AIV sees opportunities for the Royal Netherlands Air Force to broaden its cooperation with its counterparts in Norway and Denmark. The Netherlands shares with these two countries a similar political and strategic culture and a similar vision of foreign and security policy. Finally, the AIV advises that the Netherlands continue its operational cooperation with the United Kingdom by seeking to join the Joint Expeditionary Task Force (JEF), provided that the government can generate broad political support and that the United Kingdom and France are receptive to the idea. In this way, the Netherlands could acquire more political prestige and exercise influence over decisions on international action, including military action, in crisis situations. The AIV presents ten specific recommendations to the government that relate directly to the Dutch armed forces or individual services:

  1. To guarantee that the existing level of cooperation between the Dutch and Belgian navies is maintained in the future, the governments of the two countries should coordinate their current investment plans and draw up a joint set of requirements, leading in due course to a joint investment plan. An important aim of this plan should be to help to strengthen European navy capabilities. If possible, Germany too should be involved in this.
  2. To enhance still further the level of cooperation between the Dutch and Belgian navies, the operational cooperation within the framework of Benesam can be deepened by means of the joint deployment of navy units, for example for coastguard duties, mine countermeasures and antipiracy operations.
  3. To achieve cost savings in materiel and logistical cooperation between the Dutch and Belgian air forces, arrangements should be made for the joint procurement, maintenance and stationing of transport and fighter aircraft and the joint education and training of pilots. It would also be desirable for the two governments to reach the same decision on the replacement for the F-16. If the decision is in favour of the JSF, expansion of materiel and logistical cooperation with Norway and Denmark would be possible and desirable (assuming that these countries too come down in favour of the JSF).
  4. To achieve cost savings in materiel and logistical cooperation between the Dutch and German armies, arrangements should be made for the joint maintenance of the Boxer armoured vehicle and the armoured howitzer and for the joint purchase and management of ammunition. The governments of the two countries should also coordinate their current investment plans and draw up a joint set of requirements, leading in due course to a joint investment plan. An important aim of this plan should be to strengthen European military capability for land operations.
  5. To enable the Royal Netherlands Army to continue operating in the future with sufficient escalation dominance in the event of conflicts, a study should be made of whether the loss of mobility, firepower and protection as a consequence of the recent spending cuts can be offset by leasing combat tanks from the Bundeswehr, preferably by concluding a package deal with Germany. In exchange Germany could make use of Dutch equipment, or training or other facilities.
  6. The Netherlands should aim for the joint procurement, maintenance and stationing of an unmanned aerial vehicle (MALE UAV) in order to limit costs. Close cooperation with Germany would produce considerable economies of scale, including through joint training.
  7. To maximise the effectiveness of maritime Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence, operational cooperation with Germany would be the obvious course of action since the two countries lead the way in Europe in this field.
  8. To reduce the costs of operating its four submarines, the Netherlands could study whether it would be possible to place these vessels under a joint command with the eight German submarines, by analogy with the example of the Admiral Benelux operational headquarters. It is also possible that Denmark might join in any submarine cooperation. Here too, possible savings could be achieved through joint maintenance and joint crew training.
  9. To enable the armed forces to participate in high-risk missions, the possibility of operational cooperation with the United Kingdom and France in the JEF merits serious study.
  10. To strengthen the European Gendarmerie Force (EGF) as a unique niche capability in the range of police services, consideration could be given to extending it to qualify as Permanent Structured Cooperation (PSC) or establishing it as a form of enhanced cooperation as referred to in the Treaty of Lisbon.

The AIV considers it desirable for the government to work not only to embed the Dutch armed forces further in bilateral and multilateral cooperation arrangements but also to engage in active diplomacy in order to deepen international defence cooperation within NATO and the EU. The transformation towards expeditionary operations which both security organisations have undergone since the Cold War must be vigorously continued. The desired efforts should focus above all on converting the rapid reaction forces of NATO and the EU into semi-permanent cooperation arrangements, making more intensive use of NAMSA for logistical support for NATO and EU operations, denationalising the procurement of defence materiel, shifting from national to multinational education and training programmes and establishing a single research budget for internal and external security. To this end the AIV makes six additional recommendations:

  1. To deepen operational cooperation between the countries participating in the NRF and the EU Battlegroups, it would be advisable to convert the rapid reaction forces into a form of semi-permanent cooperation in which the same countries or combinations of countries participate periodically in the NRF or EU Battlegroup in accordance with a rotational plan. Those European countries which, unlike the Netherlands, do not have a fully expeditionary armed force could be encouraged to specialise by contributing a niche capability to the NRF or EU Battlegroups.
  2. To limit the high costs of making available and deploying the NRF and the EU Battlegroups it would be advisable for countries that lead one or more of these rapid reaction forces to make arrangements directly with NAMSA for their logistical support. In this way, it would be possible to ensure that agreements with NAMSA about the support of EU-led military forces do not founder due to the political blockade regarding EU-NATO cooperation.
  3. To achieve greater efficiency in expenditure on defence materiel procurement, EU member states should gradually increase the percentage of expenditure on the purchase of materiel on a bilateral or multilateral basis. Systematic research into ways of embedding international cooperation in the defence planning process of the separate member states would be necessary for this purpose. Only in this way can greater standardisation of defence materiel be achieved. The EDA should be given the job of advising member states on the necessary adjustments to the defence planning process by reference to established best practices in a number of countries and monitoring progress.
  4. To establish lasting international materiel cooperation in the areas of logistics, maintenance and training, better use should be made of the possibilities for joint courses. In addition, cooperation on defence education could be strengthened, for example by gradually expanding the European Security and Defence College.
  5. To achieve greater efficiency in the investments required in cross-border research and development, efforts must also be made to shift from national to multinational research programmes and introduce closer cooperation with the private sector. NATO’s Smart Defence and the EU’s joint investment programmes for research and technology must combine their efforts in this field in order to avoid duplication of research programmes.
  6. To generate more synergy in the research into internal and external security it is proposed (in view of the close connection between these two aspects of security) that a single EU research budget should be created for them. For this purpose, agreements should be made between the European Commission and the EDA.

Final remarks
In this report the AIV advocates a coherent approach to the expansion and deepening of European defence cooperation. This requires a twin-track approach consisting of a top-down strategy for European security cooperation and a bottom-up approach for deepening bilateral defence cooperation. It is essential that a balance be achieved between the two tracks. Too much emphasis on the first track could unduly weaken national armed forces’ sense of ownership. There is also a risk that plans forged within NATO and the EU may take the special ties that exist between countries and their armed forces insufficiently into account. Conversely, undue emphasis on the second track – the bottom-up approach – would entail the risk of a lack of coordination between (regional) clusters of partner countries, resulting in major imbalances in the military capabilities available to Europe as a whole. This is one reason why the AIV recommends the formulation of a new European security strategy. This exercise should have a dual character. First, the study should systematically assess what Europe needs in military terms in order to safeguard its security and play an important role on the world stage. Second, an evaluation should be made of national defence plans in the light of established European military needs. This evaluation should provide an answer to the question of the extent to which European countries set the right defence priorities and on what military capabilities the partnerships should preferably focus. The AIV considers that if this new European security strategy is to be a success, it should be put on the agenda at the highest political level (i.e. the European Council).

Finally, the AIV emphasises that cost savings as a result of bilateral and multilateral cooperation should not be seen as paving the way for further cuts in the Dutch defence budget. Achieving savings is a process where we have to make investments now so that we can reap the benefits later, and confidence between the cooperating partners is essential. Cost savings will be absolutely essential in order to overcome the existing operational shortfalls and maintain versatile and innovative armed forces. This is all the more important since Europe will in future increasingly be expected to stand on its own two feet militarily, and the Netherlands too will be expected to make a proportional contribution to European defence.


1  S. Gebicke and S. Magid, ‘Lessons from around the World: Benchmarking performance in defence’, McKinsey on Government, Spring 2010; see also Nick Witney, ‘Re-energising Europe’s Security and Defence Policy’, European Council on Foreign Relations, London, July 2008.
2   A classic account of the twin concepts of abandonment and entrapment can be found in Glenn H. Snyder, ‘The Security Dilemma in Alliance Politics’, World Politics 36 (4), 1984.
The Frame of Reference for decision-making on the deployment of Dutch military units in international crisis management operations was adopted in 1995 and last amended in 2009.
Advice request

Mr F. Korthals Altes
Chairman of the Advisory Council
on International Affairs
P.O. Box 20061
2500 EB The Hague

Date: 20 June 2011
Re: Request for advice on deepening international defence cooperation by Dutch armed forces

Dear Mr Korthals Altes,

Cuts in European defence spending in response to government budget deficits have refuelled the debate on European defence cooperation. Defence cooperation is sought as a means of keeping military capabilities up to scratch and sharing costs wherever possible. Against the background of the shifting balance of power in the world, deepening European defence cooperation also has great political and strategic significance for European security and burden sharing in the transatlantic partnership.

The Netherlands is seeking to further deepen its international cooperation programme. It is already involved in a number of successful multinational projects such as the European Air Transport Command (EATC) and the Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) using C-17s, and wishes to deepen bilateral cooperation, especially with Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg and the United Kingdom. This does not rule out further cooperation with other partner countries, including the United States. The efforts are an integral part of the present government’s vision for the future Dutch armed forces, in which innovation, quality and international embedding are important benchmarks.

The government acknowledges that this also raises fundamental questions about national sovereignty. Cooperation and sovereignty should not be seen as opposites, not least because deepening international cooperation by the armed forces is designed to strengthen joint military effectiveness and thereby enhance our security and sovereignty. Since we are currently striving for an ambitious, multi-annual cooperation agenda, it is appropriate to also take account of the greater or lesser sovereignty dilemmas that may arise as new initiatives are developed. As promised by the Minister of Defence to the House of Representatives, the AIV is requested to devote particular attention to this issue.

Against this backdrop the government requests the AIV, following on from its report ‘Military Cooperation in Europe: Possibilities and Limitations’, published in April 2003, to make recommendations on the further international embedding of the Dutch armed forces. As promised by the Minister of Foreign Affairs to the Senate, the AIV is requested to investigate in particular what scope this could offer for improving cooperation between the EU and NATO. The AIV’s advice could contribute to the development of the Ministry of Defence’s international cooperation agenda over the next several years.

The key questions are as follows:

Defence cooperation framework
What sovereignty issues are implicit in the various forms of defence cooperation? How are these issues expressed and how can the government and parliament deal with them? How are they viewed by the EU? Are there certain fields where cooperation seems to be an obvious option, and are there capabilities that will need to be specifically maintained at national level? What added value can the Dutch armed forces contribute internationally and can this be viewed as a form of ‘role specialisation’?

Lessons from international programmes and processes
What lessons can be learned from past multinational programmes such as the NH90, and how can we ban divergent national configurations? How great is the willingness to work together internationally, and does this vary from larger to smaller countries? What lessons can be learned from the capabilities development process within the EU (including the European Defence Agency, EDA) and NATO and what would be the best way for us to enhance the effectiveness of these processes? Should we move towards a more binding international framework, as envisaged by the Permanent Structured Cooperation mechanism? What part do the NATO Response Force (NRF) and EU Battlegroups play in promoting defence cooperation and how could this role be strengthened?

Cooperation possibilities
Are there any specific ideas for defence cooperation with partner countries, bilaterally or in a broader context, for instance along similar lines to the EATC? What opportunities exist in terms of technology and research? Are there any links with civilian capability development, especially within the EU, where the Ministry of Defence could benefit from economies of scale and interoperability?

EU-NATO cooperation
In the AIV’s opinion, what are the options for improving EU-NATO cooperation, despite the persistence of underlying political problems? We also request the AIV to outline its vision on cooperation between the EU and NATO, whether recently initiated or currently under consideration, for instance in the following fields:

  • consultations between the two organisations at official and political levels (including informal talks between all NATO and EU countries, and contacts between EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and the Secretary-General of NATO);
  • coordination and consultation at staff level;
  • capability cooperation, notably in the light of the debate about pooling and sharing, the EU-NATO Capability Group and the contacts between the EDA and the NATO Allied Command Transformation;
  • training and exercises;
  • unfreezing cooperation on the basis of the organisation-to-organisation principle.

Yours sincerely,

Uri Rosenthal
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Hans Hillen
Minister of Defence



Government reactions

To the President of the Senate
of the States General
Binnenhof 22
The Hague

Date:   11 May 2012
Re:   Advisory report of the AIV on European defence cooperation
Our reference:   BS/2012015097

Dear Mr President,

Please find enclosed the government’s response to the advisory report of the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) on ‘European defence cooperation: sovereignty and the capacity to act’.

A copy of this response has also been sent to the President of the House of Representatives of the States General.

Yours sincerely,

Hans Hillen
Minister of Defence


Uri Rosenthal
Minister of Foreign Affairs


Government’s response to the advisory report of the Advisory Council on International Affairs on ‘European defence cooperation: sovereignty and the capacity to act’

On 20 June 2011 the government asked the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) for recommendations on the further international embedding of the Dutch armed forces in the light of the multi-annual cooperation envisaged by the government for the armed forces. The AIV was asked in particular to address issues connected with Dutch national sovereignty. The AIV’s report ‘European defence cooperation: sovereignty and the capacity to act’ (January 2012) will serve as a good basis for formulating an appropriate answer. The report comes at an important moment as the government is devoting much effort to expanding and deepening international defence cooperation by the Dutch armed forces. This letter explains the reference framework used by the government in this connection.

Sovereignty and the role of the armed forces
The armed forces are one of the state’s fundamental security institutions. The government views NATO as the cornerstone of security policy and NATO and the EU as the logical forums for defence cooperation. However, the decision to deploy military personnel will always remain a national political responsibility. There is no question of shared European sovereignty in this context. Nonetheless, the government wishes to emphasise that defence cooperation and sovereignty are not opposites. Sovereignty in the narrow sense means the independence of a state in the international legal order. In its modern sense, however, sovereignty also encompasses the exercise of effective state authority within national borders and the international promotion of security and national interests. National security and international cooperation are in fact complementary, as is apparent from the functions of the armed forces under the Dutch constitution. The constitutional role of the armed forces is not only to defend our territory but also to protect our interests and promote the international legal order. Moreover, our freedom of action cannot be seen in isolation from the question of whether we have the capacity to act. Forms of cooperation that enhance our capacity to act and still guarantee that decisions on the deployment of military personnel are taken nationally do not therefore infringe our sovereignty, but – when viewed in this way – actually enhance it. The government therefore concurs with the AIV’s recommendation that the capacity to act should be regarded as an essential element of the concept of sovereignty.

International cooperation will form an essential part of the future of the Dutch armed forces. By cooperating with other partners in matters relating to procurement, maintenance, education and training, stationing and deployment, the armed forces will obtain access to capabilities that they would otherwise be unable to afford, maximise their military effectiveness and enhance their efficiency. The government is acting in the realisation that in military terms Europe must do more to stand on its own two feet. Burden-sharing in the transatlantic partnership rather than any American focus on the Pacific is the main motive for cooperation. The countries of Europe can and must strengthen their military capability by making smarter use of the opportunities for cooperation and continuing to create scope for innovation. This is the approach that best serves our interests in a world in which strategic relations are shifting and economic and security policies are increasingly interwoven at both regional and interregional level. After all, no country is still capable of meeting today’s major challenges entirely on its own, whether they be financial and economic, climatological and environmental or in the field of international security. International cooperation is all the more necessary in order to be able to maintain effective and affordable armed forces in the long run.

The government would stress that there are many possibilities for defence cooperation that would not compromise autonomy. In the case of the most common forms of cooperation such as task forces and the pooling of national capabilities and sharing of joint capabilities, national decision-making on the deployment of units can be guaranteed by means of exception clauses or a modular approach. The government therefore agrees with the AIV’s conclusion that freedom of action and autonomy in decision-making are mainly limited in practice by specific, integrated forms of operational cooperation (such as the high readiness forces headquarters of the German/Netherlands Corps or multinational units and crews) and by role and task specialisation.

Reliable partner
Although freedom of action can be guaranteed in most forms of cooperation, the government notes that international defence cooperation carries obligations. As far as operational cooperation is concerned the Netherlands must, in principle, act in accordance with the spirit of the agreements made with its partners and cannot depart from them lightly. Although any decision must always be made independently, unilateral refusal by the Netherlands to make a contribution would undermine trust and tend to frustrate relations with its partners. This is why it is important not only for cooperation projects to be carried out by military units but also for national parliaments to involve themselves more intensively in the progress and consequences of the cooperation, including through contact with the countries concerned.

In practice, the Netherlands promotes its security interests mainly through international partnerships. In the course of multilateral operations in the Balkans, Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, Dutch military personnel have become accustomed to working with and trusting international partners in numerous fields. However, the trust in NATO and the EU is also based on the principle of burden-sharing, particularly since budgets are now shrinking and capabilities becoming more scarce. Countries can no longer shift responsibility to their partners or seek to hide behind the collective. The expansion and deepening of international cooperation of our armed forces must therefore result in a strong Dutch contribution to NATO and the EU. The AIV has rightly emphasised in this connection that the prospect of more cooperation in the defence field cannot be a justification for allowing defence budgets to shrink even further. To achieve successful forms of cooperation that produce economies of scale and cost savings it may first be necessary to incur expenditure.

In developing and implementing multi-annual cooperation programmes, each country must demonstrate that it is a reliable partner. This means not only that the Netherlands should, where necessary, give its partners precise information about the progress of national decision-making, but also that it should not backtrack on partnership agreements made in consultation with the House of Representatives. Ultimately, multi-annual cooperation programmes can succeed only if they receive stable funding.

Cooperation choices
The government recognises that NATO and the EU have become too large to undertake some cooperation initiatives. It will therefore focus on initiatives involving smaller bilateral or regional partnerships. Unnecessary institutionalisation should, after all, be avoided and, in the interests of effectiveness, trust and also public support in the Netherlands, it is advisable to stay as ‘close to home’ as possible when choosing these partnerships. Smaller groups of like-minded countries with overlapping interests are the best suited to achieving specific objectives most quickly and offer the best prospect of deeper cooperation. In this way the Netherlands also retains the necessary freedom to choose its partners. It must always be clear, however, that regional partnerships do not stand alone, but are building blocks of NATO and the EU. Deepening the cooperation achieved in this way can then serve as an example to others. The Netherlands is playing a pioneering role in Europe through its participation in the Belgian-Dutch Navy Cooperation (Benesam), the European Air Transport Command (EATC), the high readiness forces headquarters of the German/Netherlands Corps and the C-17 strategic airlift capability initiative.

The government is therefore choosing in practice to expand and deepen its operational defence cooperation with geographically proximate partners that have a strategic and political culture comparable to that of the Netherlands. This means building on good relations with countries such as Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Norway and Denmark. The government thanks the AIV for its specific proposals for possible cooperation with our partner countries. Some of them would not be feasible in the short term and it is also questionable to what extent the intended partner countries would be willing to take such a step. Nonetheless, the ideas will be taken into account when policy is formulated. Most of the proposals are in keeping with the spirit of the talks in which the Netherlands is already engaged with the countries concerned. This is a gradual process. In practice, these countries are now taking decisions on the future configuration of their armed forces by scrapping certain weapons systems and/or intensifying their efforts in new capability areas, taking account of the growing financial constraints. By keeping each other properly informed about this they are better placed to take account of the choices made elsewhere, thereby minimising the chance of gaps in capabilities at the level of NATO and the EU.

Task specialisation is the most far-reaching form of cooperation and involves the highest degree of mutual dependence. The government does not, in principle, rule out task specialisation as an option, particularly now that financial constraints mean that fewer and fewer European countries can afford to maintain armed forces that are fully self-sufficient. If defence cooperation with preferred partners is deepened, this could conceivably result in due course in agreement about the division of responsibilities. Initially, this would probably involve support capabilities and the education and training of personnel.

The EU and NATO
The EU with its Ghent Initiative and NATO with its Smart Defence concept are providing new frameworks for defence cooperation and generating new initiatives. These organisations can help to bring large numbers of countries together, for example for projects involving research and technology development. However, their main focus should be on creating the right conditions for defence cooperation in the future. Agreements in the EU and NATO can ensure that the clusters of like-minded countries ultimately seek to achieve the same objectives. The formulation of doctrine and standardisation should preferably also take place in these organisations.

The Netherlands will continue to urge NATO and the EU, in particular the European Defence Agency, to coordinate their efforts properly. At the insistence of the countries, the staffs of these organisations consult regularly together and make agreements about the division of responsibilities. Ultimately it is up to the countries themselves to choose the framework in which they wish to develop their initiatives. Once a month the EU-NATO Capability Group meets with representatives of the NATO allies and EU member states that fulfil the EU-NATO Security Agreement (only Cyprus is excluded from the Agreement). Outside this forum, formal consultations at political level between the two organisations are still blocked by the familiar political obstacles resulting from the dispute between Turkey and Cyprus (which has the support of Greece). Despite the concerted efforts by NATO’s Secretary-General and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy on the eve of the NATO summit in Strasbourg/Kehl in 2010, these obstacles have still not been removed. The government is therefore putting the emphasis on practical, informal cooperation between the two organisations, above all at staff level.

The AIV points out that the EU and NATO do not have a mechanism for coordinating spending cuts in national defence budgets and that a new European Security Strategy is necessary in order to translate specific security objectives into a European needs identification process. This would oblige the countries to consult together more closely about their defence expenditure. However, the government sees no immediate need for an extensive review since the 2003 European Security Strategy, as evaluated in 2008, still provides a sufficiently up-to-date description of the challenges and threats facing Europe. The government will, however, take active steps in the EU and NATO to create the right conditions for future defence cooperation in Europe, as far as possible based on the current processes. This includes ensuring that these organisations have data available on European military shortfalls and surpluses that can be of assistance in national decision-making. After all, operational needs identification for the armed forces remains primarily a national process, although proper account must always be taken of the shortfalls, surpluses and future priorities established within the EU and NATO. Against this background the Netherlands will endeavour to coordinate and harmonise its needs identification more effectively with like-minded partner countries with which it aims to establish closer cooperation. Ultimately this could result, as also noted by the AIV in its specific proposals, in joint investment plans. For the time being, however, this must be regarded as something for the future.

Removing obstacles
The starting point for more effective European defence cooperation should be joint procurement and maintenance of materiel. This would create scope for cooperation in the fields of maintenance, education and training, stationing and deployment, thereby enhancing effectiveness and interoperability during missions. However, as the AIV emphasises, this could still be frustrated by national industrial interests. The government recognises the special position of defence-related industries in relation to the protection of their expertise and innovative capability. On the other hand, it stresses the importance of having a competitive European defence industry and level playing field. The introduction of the EU’s new defence procurement directive will help to achieve this goal. In addition, it can be seen from previous materiel projects that it is important to agree on joint needs at an early stage. Complex national planning and investment procedures must be coordinated for this purpose. National tailor-made configurations must be avoided as far as possible, not only because they push up prices but also because they limit the scope for cooperation during the life cycle of the materiel. The AIV proposes that the countries should be brought together for a stricter, more top-down approach to capability cooperation, if necessary under the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PSC) mechanism under the Treaty on European Union, but the government fears that this would promote the very institutionalisation that must be avoided. Member states cannot be compelled in this way to cooperate more closely.

The AIV’s advisory report shows that freedom of action can be guaranteed in most defence partnerships. Once again, therefore, it is evident that sovereignty concerns need not be an obstacle to the promotion of defence cooperation. The government will always assess what capabilities the Netherlands should possess independently, particularly to be able itself to adequately guarantee the safety of deployed personnel and discharge the constitutional functions of the armed forces. Deciding on the operational deployment of the armed forces is one of the most onerous national political responsibilities given the possibility that armed force may be have to be used and the risk to the safety of defence personnel. The national process of needs identification and procurement will have to take account of the agreements made by the Netherlands in NATO and the EU on the type of capabilities needed. This government has decided that international cooperation should, more than ever before, serve as the basis for major materiel projects, so that the Netherlands is able at any early stage to gauge the scope for cooperation with like-minded countries and thus cover the entire life cycle of the materiel. In each case, it will assess what control the Netherlands wishes and is able to retain in the light of the budgetary constraints and how this relates to the advantages of such a partnership in terms of the capacity to act. We invite the House to engage in a fundamental debate on the intensification of international defence cooperation to promote the capacity to act in the interests of the Netherlands and its allies, in the light of the principles of autonomy and sovereignty.

Press releases

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