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Russia and Global Security Risks
The European Security Dilemma: Is the EU Ready to Leave the US Fold?

The transatlantic community forces have been recently realigned, which, in the near future, will likely shape new European security architecture. Washington has already spearheaded this realignment. The United States is seeking to revise its foreign policy priorities and streamline the costs involved in this revision, writes Igor Avlasenko, Associate Professor at the Belarusian State University.

Recently, with the United States planning to withdraw a portion of its armed forces from Germany, the leaders of major European states made a number of statements to the effect that the EU needs to become an independent geopolitical power and prepare to assume a new role in a world where the United States is no longer a leader. These remarks may well herald the inception of a new strategic EU policy, which, even though marked by continued US military presence, will be based on the EU plan to take on a more prominent and independent role in building a security architecture in Europe. However, this will require the EU to not only become more independent in matters of defence and security, but also show greater cohesion and willingness to articulate and uphold its own political and economic interests.

On June 15, 2020, President Trump officially stated that the number of the US contingent in Germany would be reduced by 10,000 troops. The US president’s main complaint was that Germany never reached the level of defence spending of 2 percent of GDP, which the United States had insisted upon lately. Washington was also displeased by Berlin’s failure to play along in curtailing support for the Nord Stream 2 project. In response to the US threats to impose sanctions on the companies involved in the completion and use of the second gas pipeline, a number of German officials said they were ready to develop a set of retaliatory measures.

It appears that Germany was psychologically prepared for this turn of events. In her June 26 interview with several European newspapers, Angela Merkel said that Europe needs to prepare for a new world where the United States is no longer a leader. Merkel’s thought was paraphrased by Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. From her point of view, US policy is unlikely to change even if a new administration comes to the White House and Joe Biden becomes president.

The German politicians’ statements resonate with French President Macron’s November 2019 remark about NATO's “brain death.” In an interview with The Economist, he called for Europe to become an independent geopolitical force; otherwise it will run the risk of losing control over its own destiny. In June, in the wake of an incident with a Turkish ship headed for the coast of Libya and suspected of carrying weapons for a party to the Libyan conflict, Macron reiterated this view at a joint news conference with his Tunisian colleague. The French president did not say there was no need for NATO as such, but pointed out that NATO’s decision-making system and the coordination of the allies’ actions were in crisis, thus indicating the need for EU autonomy in security matters.

Are these statements accidental, or are they a manifestation of an ongoing process? The idea about ​​EU security and defence autonomy has been circulating since the EU was created in 1993. France has traditionally been the main lobbyist for this idea. However, Paris’ attempts to make it a practical matter invariably met with US resistance. The “three D’s” concept advanced by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in December 1998 was the most outstanding case in point: “de-linking” (security of Europe and the United States and the decision-making process), avoid “duplicating” (actions of the European Union and NATO), and avoid “discriminating” (against NATO members that are not EU members). Despite the formal creation of the EU foreign policy, security and defence institutions, European defence has remained largely under NATO’s umbrella. Even the 2003 transatlantic crisis caused by disagreements over the US invasion of Iraq was unable to properly incentivise the EU to build an army of its own. Mainly, the EU's independence in military matters crystallised slowly and, mainly, in secondary matters, such as setting up its own peacekeeping missions around the world and post-conflict settlement.

A fairly strong NATO lobby in the key EU states, primarily, the UK and Eastern European countries (after the latter joined the EU in 2004 and 2007), remains another major factor that keeps the EU from full autonomy in matters of security and defence. The NATO direction was particularly strong in Germany, which is the key EU state. Since the unification of Germany (1990), the CDU/CSU Party, which is the mainstay of the NATO course, has led the ruling coalitions for 23 out of 30 years (except 1998-2005). The restrained position of Berlin, along with strong resistance on the part of Great Britain and the Eastern European EU members, was, as a rule, an obstacle to Paris’ attempts to implement its ideas.

However, the latest events show that even within the CDU/CSU Party, despite the protocol statements about the importance of transatlantic solidarity and the support for the US military presence in Germany, the nature of relations with Washington has been revised.

This trend has been taking shape over the past several years. Berlin (and Chancellor Merkel) was annoyed by the unpredictable and inconsistent policy of the incumbent US president on a variety of issues, from participation in multilateral formats such as the G7 or the WTO to dismantling the arms control system. In fact, Berlin is gradually coming to understand that the United States is losing its role as a defender of European interests and common transatlantic values. Given these circumstances, European politicians declared the need to turn the EU into an independent geopolitical centre of power with its own agenda, which it could offer to the world and protect from competitors.

This vision was further reinforced by the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis. If during the 2008-2009 recession, the leading countries at least tried to overcome it jointly by reforming global institutions, this time the underlying currents of the pandemic were quite unfavourable. In 2018, a trade war between the United States and China broke out, prospects for a trade war between the United States and the EU became quite real, and Washington started seeking to revise its terms of membership in international organisations. By March 2020, when the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic, major differences between the leading centres of the modern world were already in place. They were further aggravated by the fact that the pandemic coincided with the political cycle in the United States, i.e. preparations for the upcoming presidential election in November. This made US foreign policy even less predictable, especially given President Trump’s desire to get re-elected for another term.

However, not all EU states are supportive of greater EU autonomy from the United States. The Eastern European EU members (primarily Poland) chose to take advantage of the situation and reinforce their ties with Washington. Unlike Germany, they are willing to spend their budgetary funds on defence (the 2 percent of GDP in question) and even to allocate money for keeping the US troops, which perfectly suits President Trump. Already on June 6, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki expressed hope that the number of US soldiers and officers in the country would increase due to the military personnel transfer from Germany to his country. Later, President of Poland Andrzej Duda officially welcomed this plan during his visit to Washington. Thus, the United States is changing focus on its allies in Europe, and instead of Germany it is now relying on Poland.

It’s not that Poland's plan came as a surprise. The Eastern European states have long been the bulwark of NATO solidarity. Since 2014, when relations with Russia turned sour, they have been encouraging the United States to increase its military presence on their respective territories. So, Poland simply took advantage of the opportunity that opened up in the wake of the US-Germany conflict.

Thus, the transatlantic community forces have been recently realigned, which, in the near future, will likely shape new European security architecture. Washington has already spearheaded this realignment. The United States is seeking to revise its foreign policy priorities and streamline the costs involved in this revision. The US military presence is shifting from Central Europe to Eastern Europe, closer to the borders of Russia, which the US strategic documents unequivocally refer to as a strategic rival. The task is made easier by the fact that the Eastern European EU members are willing to spend considerable amounts of their budgets on defence without burdening Washington with unnecessary claims.

Given the circumstances, France and Germany are becoming the forces that advocate greater EU autonomy from Washington in matters of security and defence. Earlier, Paris acted as the main advocate of this approach, but now, it appears, Berlin is ready to join in. The very understanding of the need to develop autonomy will encourage France and Germany - the largest EU economy - to increase spending on security and defence, and, possibly, to increase this spending item in the EU budget in the future. The implementation of these plans is further facilitated by Brexit, which took place shortly before (in late January 2020), which somewhat undermined the Eurosceptics’ position in the EU Council.

It should be borne in mind that even with the EU’s stronger desire to ensure its security, NATO is not going anywhere, but European states (primarily France and Germany) will be able to assume the leading role in organising NATO missions in adjacent regions (such as the Mediterranean) and will have to assume the bulk of the financial burden. The gradual shift of the US interests towards East Asia has led to a decrease in the US involvement in the regional “frozen” conflicts along the perimeter of the EU borders (in the Balkans and the post-Soviet space). Washington continues to watch them unfold, but the EU will play an increasing role in settling them, as well as seek a modus vivendi with its closest neighbours, including Russia. In this context, it is no coincidence that the French president started talking about the need to resume the “dialogue on confidence and security measures” with Moscow and to promote cooperation “from Lisbon to Vladivostok.”

However, something else is important. Full and comprehensive provision of its own security will require the EU to deploy much greater efforts than the ones currently declared by the politicians. After all, the concept of security in the modern world is much broader and covers a greater number of different aspects. Security includes the protection of domestic commercial companies’ interests and the creation of an environment conducive to creating European TNCs that would set (on a par with US corporations and as a counterbalance to them) their own standards that would define the agenda in strategic and promising areas of the future such as internet technologies, outer space exploration and military research. Such moves are fraught with bitter trade and sanctions wars with the United States, similar to the ones that China and Russia are currently experiencing.

The construction of the EU has not always been smooth. Periods of speedy European integration were followed by periods of “eurosclerosis.” The last 15 years were marred by crises. They started out with the failed draft European constitution followed by the eurozone problems, the migration crisis and Brexit. The coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis have effectively raised the question of the EU’s survival within the existing model. Earlier, the EU could count on the support of the United States, but it’s a whole new ballgame now. Washington refuses to provide assistance to its European allies and even threatens them with a trade war. Actually, the EU has been left on its own, and only internal reforms can ensure its continued existence and influence on global economic and political processes.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.