European Defence: Tough Questions

The European plans to establish a Defence Union are gaining in momentum. The EU has approved the second package of joint programs (Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO). There are also plans to increase, after a trial period, the European Defence Fund (EDF) to 13 billion euros (by 22 times) during the next budget cycle (2021-2027). In 2018, the EU launched the Capability Development Plan (CDP) to synchronize the supply of “European” weapons to national armed forces. The European crisis response planning and control system is being upgraded.

The European motives are quite clear and prompted by the “Ukrainian” crisis of European security, one compounded by the migration crisis, which made the EU turn to “hard power;” the crisis of transatlantic relations and Donald Trump’s unprecedented pressure on the European allies, who are for him rivals and well-nigh poor relatives indebted to the United States for collective protection; and Brexit that removes the UK veto on European defence. Of course, there are many other reasons to promote this project, including those related to the political programs and ambitions of European leaders, primarily President of France Emmanuel Macron.

But the growth dilemmas– “want-and-must” vs. “can-and-will” – are increasingly obvious against the background of the EU’s “global” goals and political decisions on international politics and security, which are being successfully implemented.   

Europe’s readiness to advance towards a “Europe of defence,” even if the UK is against it, was clearly revealed back in 2012-2013, when the talks on the terms of its EU membership were in progress. After the British referendum in June 2016, the European grandees – France and Germany – actually had no choice other than to rally together a large team of European defence supporters and activate the PESCO article of the Treaty of Lisbon. The EU and its leaders had to stay on the declared course. The EU global strategy has opened the floodgates, putting European defence in the mainstream. After a vote at the European Council, practical work got under way to implement its resolutions. Given the tug-of-war with Trump and a long-playing Brexit, the question as to “where the stream heads” was never formulated. 

Today, however, this question is of central importance for assessing prospects for European defence and its support by the member-states. A European army under a French (or Franco-German) command may have an appeal for Emmanuel Macron but not for all of his partners. EuroDefence without the US as the basis of European independence is a grand-sounding slogan and an orienting point but they are hardly acceptable for those EU members who count on US guarantees and NATO. The EU Global Strategy’s section on European security indicates Russia as the main strategic challenge. How will EuroDefence meet it without the US and, most importantly, without an EU consensus on the Russia policy and containment of the Russian Federation? In other words, EuroDefence may become a reality only when all the stockholders define and jointly approve its conceptual framework, stating clearly whom they intend to defend themselves from and with what chances of success. If publicly formulated, the goals of European defence, let alone the problem of operational planning in the hypothetical European army, would provoke an internal crisis in the EU.

The goal-setting dilemma is directly linked to the member-countries’ vested interest. It is not only that a conventional Euro-Atlantic country does not share the security and defence priorities of its Baltic neighbors. Its targets are national economic status, technological growth, stability and competitiveness. At an initial stage of European defence planning, including PESCO, the European Defence Fund, and other mechanisms and tools, the EU countries did not want to be dropped overboard while others were engaged in decision-making. Nor did they want to stay outside the “board of directors” and budget funds. Now they are on these programs, but does this mean that they are committed to “European defence?” More likely no than yes! Small and middle European countries are not prepared to invest in the development of the European arms market that may erode their national economic and technological sectors and will, in effect, benefit the biggest arms producers and exporters, primarily France. Will Emmanuel Macron be able to persuade other EU partners rather than Angela Merkel, who is leaving her post anyway, to invest in this EuroDefence? This is not the only economic rationality-related question, particularly with account taken of the European strategic dependence on the US military-industrial complex. The answer is clear: the majority of European countries are not overeager (or not eager at all) to put their faith in European defence, but they will fight for its joint funds and resources.

What does this mean? They are quite likely (though not indisputably) to make progress while implementing the plans. Up till now, for example, it is unclear what sanctions will be adopted against the operators (or countries) that fail to perform their commitments under PESCO. But given the EU’s huge organizational and technical potential, there is no doubt that the plans will generally be implemented and initialed by its governing agencies. But there is still no answer to the above mentioned question about the goals of EuroDefence. For justice’s sake it should be recalled that all previous compromises in this sphere, including the Treaties of the European Union, were tools intended to clear the ground for further advances rather than roadmaps. Today, the situation is different. The European “pooling and sharing” is emerging as a challenge for its investors, who are concerned with how to preserve and increase their national shareholdings and are totally unconcerned with the ideas behind the European army.

The EU is aware that the prospects for European defence depend on NATO partnership. Paradoxically, Europe would like to shed its dependence precisely on the US and its elected leaders. Nevertheless, the EU signed in 2016 the Joint Declaration on EU-NATO Cooperation and yet another declaration in 2018. Both instruments speak about the strategic partnership of the two independent organizations, but in fact the European Union joins NATO’s political and, most importantly, operational planning, including the effort to contain Russia. A case in point is the EU Military Mobility Action Plan implemented with regard for strategic redeployment requirements outlined by the US. The European EuroDefence resources are actually invested in NATO’s Russia forward containment strategy. Therefore, the “European defence” that is inevitably based on partnership with NATO is unlikely to mean the strategic autonomy declared by the EU. Moreover, one finds it hard to visualize an EU autonomous defence organization that outlines clear-cut strategic objectives and aims while agreeing to avoid “duplicating NATO.” If anything, no-alternative cooperation with NATO, where the rules of the game and the general strategy are defined by the United States, means “one step forward and two steps back” from European autonomy. But Europe is used to waiting and building up its potential. However, 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, as Donald Trump put it, has failed to lead to European defence autonomy, implying immunity from America’s dominant influence.

The much advertised EU “breakthrough” towards European defence and strategic autonomy remains problematic. Despite the European determination and enthusiasm, the imbalance between the ambitions and realities is emphasized even in a recent report presented by the EU Court of Auditors. The report points to considerable strategic differences in how the member countries perceive security threats and the role of the Security and Defence Union; concepts like “strategic autonomy” or “European army” remain too broad and vague. According to the report, the current military capabilities of the member-states fall short of the EU’s military ambitions. Moreover, it will take several hundred billion euros to implement these ambitions and make up for “European defence” deficits. The problem is not even whether the EU countries are ready to invest so much in the EuroDefence trademark (they are definitely not). The question is whether this project is of interest to the European arms establishment, particularly the French and British establishments that have to withstand Trump and Brexit pressures.

The problem of interoperability between the prospective European army and the Americans is not on the agenda: NATO will take care of that and there are no other options. Staff control is to be exercised by the Euro-Atlantic command (NATO) and therefore “European defence” cannot be organized autonomously, to wit, without America. The European defence ambitions will be contained by the nuclear factor, particularly after the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty and in connection with Britain’s post-Brexit nuclear planning problems.

But what about Russia? European autonomy is clearly evoking a prevailing skeptical attitude. But support for this autonomy is growing too. So, why not meet and discuss things? But the EU, while aspiring to an “anti-American” autonomy, promotes a strategic partnership with NATO. At the same time, the EU offers Moscow a selective partnership in “European interest” areas. Moscow still has no reply to questions like to what extent the EU can be autonomous from the US, what parameters of its military operational development are likely to be, and whether these can be embodied in the projected European Defence Union. The Russian attitude to PESCO remains skeptical. The prevailing sentiment is “we would like to, but you are unlikely to make it.” Politically, Russia hopes for the restoration of the security and defence dialogue with the EU and leaves the “European defence” component of that dialogue till better times. Russian awareness of the “European defence” is also important for the Europeans. But, as engines of Russian-European partnership, Saint-Malo (in the late 1990s) and the Meseberg reset (2010) have reached the end of their shelf life. The see-and-wait policy will prevail during the next year a half, when Russian-European contacts and cooperation should gradually come back to normal and Europe’s stability will increase after a change of guard in the EU and the end of electoral turbulence in the United States.    
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.