In The Media

DEBATE: What are the real prospects for strengthened European defence?

with Julian-Lindley French and Sven Biscop

NATO Review Magazine
December 15, 2016

Two experts debate the significance of the conclusions of the European Council meeting on 15 December 2016.

European leaders agreed that Europeans must do more to strengthen Europe's security and defence in a challenging geopolitical environment.

They discussed proposals to implement the EU Global Strategy in the area of Security and Defence, which sets the level of ambition of the European Union. They welcomed the Commission's proposed European Defence Action Plan and looked forward to the establishment of a European Defence Fund and the joint development of capabilities commonly agreed by EU member states. They also urged swift action to implement EU-NATO cooperation in jointly agreed areas.

Sven Biscop

Who will do it?

Since June, when the United Kingdom voted for Brexit and High Representative Federica Mogherini published the new EU Global Strategy, we have seen a flurry of proposals to step up the defence efforts of European nations through more cooperation. Only by drastically increasing cooperation, by moving to military integration even, can Europeans hope to acquire the capacity “to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners wherever possible,” as the European Council put it on 15 December.

Including the objective of “strategic autonomy” in the Global Strategy was prescient. The focus of US strategy had already shifted to Asia and the Pacific, and US President-elect Donald Trump seems set to reinforce this trend. Distrust is also growing between many European capitals and NATO-ally Turkey. In that light, it is self-evident that Europeans nations need the enhanced military capabilities, and access to a command structure, that would allow them to act alone when that is the only option. Of course, any extra European capability automatically is an extra for NATO too.

But, which European nations are really willing to use the incentives and facilities (such as Permanent Structured Cooperation) that the EU has created? Many nations have submitted proposals, most have yet to act upon them.

Julian Lindley-French

We have a problem. Sven and I are in violent agreement.

This is a big strategic moment. There should be every opportunity for the rump EU to move towards what many member states have pretended they always wanted – a form of European Defence Union and in time a European Army. In fact, the recent ‘EU defence summit’ raised but dashed expectations – it was the same old ‘emperor’s new clothes’: only recognise as much threat as we can afford.

If ever there was a time for EU radicalism it is now – a real chance to restructure the Alliance into a mutually reinforcing Anglosphere and Eurosphere. An effective Common Security and Defence Policy is vital because the flag atop an operation is as important in complexity as the force deployed.

A year ago I rejected Brexit, standing in the snows of Lithuania, because I placed the liberty of my fellow Europeans before my irritation with the anti-democratic tendencies of Brussels. I might quibble with the cost of establishing a separate EU command structure but if it meant real strategic vision I would accept that as the political price.

Sorry, but yet again another EU ‘defence summit’ has simply failed to pass the ‘so what?’ test.

Sven Biscop

Over to Berlin. Defence is fast becoming the next issue on which everybody looks to Germany to provide leadership for Europe.

Consider the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in the EU and the Framework Nations Concept in NATO (groups of Allies working together on a multinational basis to develop forces and capabilities, coordinated by a ‘framework nation’) – Germany launched the latter and will come out with new proposals on the former. Both aspire to the same: taking the leap from defence cooperation (making oneself interoperable with partners) to integration (creating permanent multinational force packages including jointly owned and operated strategic enablers).

Both frameworks can work. PESCO has the advantage of prospective European Commission funding. So far, the Commission plans for a European Defence Fund to invest in capability projects are the most concrete item on the table. And it might work, if the Commission puts up a good share of the money itself.

And it might work if France makes the leap as well. Both Paris and Berlin must play, for without them no integrative scheme will reach the scale required to make it viable. For France, however, the UK remains the military partner of choice. At the same time, France needs defence integration in order to continue to live up to its own high ambitions. Can there be a Franco-German axis in defence?

Julian Lindley-French

Again, so what? Words not swords! Does EU defence tinkering add any real defence power?

Next spring President Trump will come to Brussels demanding a big NATO burden-sharing summit. For Trump, the 2%/20% defence investment pledge made by Allies at the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales – i.e. a commitment to spend a minimum of 2% of their Gross Domestic Product on defence and more than 20% of their defence budgets on major equipment, including related research and development within the next decade – is simply a down-payment on America’s future defence of Europe and he will want it now.

Yes, the agreement to create a mini EU HQ, better procurement spending and marginal force integration might lead to marginally improved effectiveness. And yes, the declaration by the EU to honour the 2%/20% defence investment pledge (sort of) is also to be welcomed.

However, none of the above helps Europeans confront Europe’s defence fundamentals. An arbitrary declaration over such a long timeframe (2024) is in effect meaningless as it fails to match what needs to be done with what has been promised (sort of).

This is an age of unforgiving power. Berlin is simply politically and psychologically unable to lead anything other than a soft, small European defence in a big, hard age. Britain will increase defence expenditure precisely because it is London’s big Brexit card, which will force the French closer to London not Berlin.

Sorry, this latest EU summit was more pretence than defence (again).

Sven Biscop

The British investment in defence will be very important – and hopefully will not suffer if, the moment the UK effectively leaves the EU, its economy and the Pound might suffer. Today may be the calm before the storm.

France definitely continues to see the UK as its partner of choice for serious military operations. But, with the UK absorbed by the Brexit negotiations, can France alone be the engine of Europe’s expeditionary role? And, in terms of multinational European capability development, Paris knows that it cannot count on London joining in, especially not after the Brexit referendum – but it can hope that German money will make it work. So, we need a Franco-German axis as the core of an increasingly integrated European full-spectrum force package (supported by Commission incentives), which builds interoperability with the UK.

The EU, and NATO, can facilitate this, but only the nations can do it. Do they really want to?

Perhaps Europeans should start thinking about the choice that the UK made in the mid-1930s: we can no longer assume that there will be no serious threat, or that someone else will come and avert it for us, so we have to start seriously rearming. We can do with less than the 1.5 million people that the EU28 currently pay to wear uniform, but we sure need a lot more real capabilities, for expeditionary operations and defence.

Julian Lindley-French

By way of response to Sven's excellent analysis, let me take a step back and look at the bigger strategic picture.

The inner-European defence debate will remain sheer self-obsession if it continues to fail to connect European security with world security. We need BOTH EU and NATO to be credible security and defence actors if we are to protect our people against the range of threats and threatening actors who now confront us.

That means a real NATO-EU strategic partnership, the proper 'integration' of both Britain and Turkey in that effort, and an engaged America allied to a Europe engaged in America's global mission. That will require strategy, vision, flexibility, and commitment.

2017 will be the year when we discover if our leaders are big enough to realise the need for win-win politics or condemn us all to the petty ‘lose all’ of a little Europe in a big world. Your call leaders...


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