Is there a generally accepted way of managing the institutional relationship between a society and its military in the European Union (EU)? Is there something characteristically European about the relationship? This study from the Centre for European Security Studies looks at the common norms and good practices of civil-military relations in the countries of the EU. It argues that although there has been much talk of a common European approach and common values, actual mechanisms vary significantly from country to country.
Alignment to European practice is the central requirement demanded by the EU. This ‘European practice’ implies institutional set-up and division of authority between the elected politicians and the military. Nevertheless, there is a lack of definitive EU standards concerning democratic governance of the military. The EU’s normal practice is for decisions to be made by a process of bargaining from national positions.
National oversight bodies (normally committees within parliaments) scrutinise decisions, before or after the decision is collectively taken in Brussels. The fact that there are variations in timing, level of detail and expertise in the national scrutiny procedures does not mean the process does not work. However, national governments could give commitments to collective action, which have not been publicly justified to the extent that purely national deployment decisions would be.
Individual countries are protective of their way of doing things, which has usually evolved as the result of a long process of adaptation to local conditions. Nevertheless, the basic ingredients of practices in all EU countries can be reduced at a national level to a number of norms:
- Politically neutral armed forces.
- Governmental oversight of general staff through defence ministries.
- Extensive oversight powers for the parliament.
- General clear subordination of the armed forces to democratically elected governments.
There are many divergences in detail across the EU but these do not undermine the fundamental similarities of approach. Rather than abolishing existing mechanisms, which work well at national levels, it may be better to continue with under-defined common principles and diversity in detail.
- Civil-military relations require not only the primacy of politics, but also military professionalism and a balance between these two elements.
- The complexity of security responses to the variety of threats demands a more unitary organisational set-up in which the military’s impact and role has decreased.
- It remains difficult for civilian leaders to contest the conceptual and operational considerations of the military.
- There is a growing disconnect between the experience and therefore the ideas and priorities of parliamentary decision-makers and their military servants.
- Among the key factors influencing parliamentary actions are public opinion and the media. It is difficult to determine the extent to which the institutional relationship is accurately reflecting the civil will.
- New forms of communication like social networking websites or blogs will make it even more difficult to document informal expression of public opinion.