In 2011, Libyan citizens rose up against their dictator General Gaddafi. The population in the rebel cities was at risk of being massacred by Gaddafi’s airforce. NATO sprang into action. One of its roles was to maintain a ‘no-fly zone’ over Libya. NATO planes equipped with radar systems (AWACS) were essential in order to monitor Libyan airspace.

The no-fly zone was declared by the United Nations. But Germany abstained during the vote in the Security Council. The Merkel government was against military action in Libya and refused to take part in the NATO operations. Germany therefore withdrew its personnel from the AWACS aircraft which were already operating over the Mediterranean sea, costing the aircraft a third of their multinational crew. The gaps had to be hastily filled by other NATO countries.

European countries are forced to work together during military interventions. This is especially true for the Netherlands. This mutual dependence can conflict with a country’s power of decision-making over its own troops, as the AWACS example shows. A party such as GroenLinks, which was the first in the Netherlands to advocate extensive integration of European armed forces, must account for that. Especially now that defence integration is actually at long last taking shape, as illustrated by the creation of the German-Dutch Rapid Forces Division. As integration deepens and each country settles down to specific military duties within the greater whole of the EU or NATO, a decision by one country not to participate deals an ever sharper blow to our combined strength.

And the credibility of the alliance also suffers.

Looking across the border

In Burgers beschermen (‘Protecting Citizens’), Gerrit Pas puts his finger on it: “There is an unresolved tension between GroenLinks’ tendency to see itself as the command centre in military operations (…) and GroenLinks’ advocacy of extensive task specialisation and defence cooperation in an EU context.”

How can this tension be resolved? It may help if we can see The Hague slightly less as the centre of the world and look more across the border when it comes to the debate on military intervention. In doing so, GroenLinks should ask itself at least four questions:

  • What do other countries within the EU and NATO think? Will the Netherlands be isolated if it stands on the sidelines? Or will we alienate important European partners by joining in?
  • What are the consequences for our military partners if the Netherlands does not join in? Will their actions be handicapped; will their troops be exposed to greater risks?
  • What do European citizens think? Does GroenLinks reflect the opposition of large groups of Europeans to a reckless or illegitimate intervention, or purely national aversion to a coalition government in The Hague? There is a big difference. The criterion of ‘political and social context in the Netherlands’, as set out in the starting document for the party debate, remains too parochial.
  • What do other green parties and the green fraction in the European Parliament think? They do not only work on the same principles as GroenLinks but can also contribute additional knowledge of conflict areas.


Within GroenLinks’ decision-making framework, these four questions should combine to form an additional criterion: alliance-mindedness. Or, if you wish: solidarity. It is important to bear in mind that this principle works both ways. Sometimes it is the Netherlands that needs to rely on its allies, for example in the investigation into the downing of flight MH17 and efforts to identify the perpetrators.

Dying for Europe

The tension between international dependence and a country’s power to take its own decisions on military intervention can only truly be resolved by raising decision-making to the European level. By not just pooling military resources but also sharing sovereignty. It is convenient in this respect that the EU, unlike NATO, has a genuine parliament that can provide a democratic mandate for armed intervention. Moreover, the EU strives for a broader foreign policy in which civil instruments (diplomacy, humanitarian aid, development cooperation, sanctions) are to the forefront and military intervention is a last resort.

Sharing sovereignty does not mean that the European Parliament will suddenly replace the Dutch Parliament and start taking decisions on whether to expose our men and women in uniform to the dangers of war. Europeanisation can only be a step-by-step process, part of a gradual strengthening of common foreign policy. Obviously, the EU will first of all assume responsibility for managing certain ‘big-ticket’ defence capabilities – such as military cargo and tanker aircraft. Defence ministers and the European Parliament will then decide jointly, with an enhanced majority, on the deployment of these resources as well as the accompanying personnel.

Dying for Europe, is that a bridge too far? A party that advocates the forming of a European army in its election programme must be prepared to think through the consequences.


his article was first published in Dutch by De Helling.

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