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Stronger Together - Charting a Way Forward for European Defense

ARTICLES - 15 February 2021

The Covid-19 crisis has once again proven the need for more cooperation between European member states in times of crisis. It is also an example of the EU's ability to overcome its differences and design a common response, as demonstrated by the 750 billion euro recovery plan that member states managed to agree on after all. 

While attention today is rightly focused on public health, Europeans should not overlook the other sources of risk looming over their security. The strategic environment has deeply deteriorated since the 2000s, with a global confrontation between the United States and China, Russian aggression backed by the restoration of its military power, Turkey’s increasing involvement in its neighbourhood, and the spread of jihadism, from the Gulf of Guinea to the Philippines. Global military spending is rising significantly: from $1,114 billion in 2000 to $1,917 billion in 2019, with a 3.6% increase between 2018 and 2019 (the largest annual increase since 2010). Europe is facing a growing number of crises: financial crises, cyber attacks, pandemics, terror attacks, information manipulation, and foreign investment in strategic infrastructure, assets and technologies. 

In this context, the response needs to be European. While the community approach is often arduous, when it bears fruit, it is the only one that puts the EU in a position to respond to global challenges. In a world increasingly dominated by superpowers like the United States, China, Russia and India, and revolving around power politics, European states stand a better chance by sticking together. 

A long road ahead

It is therefore essential that we persevere in European defense cooperation: we have no alternative. However, the debate around European defense has remained largely theoretical, with a focus on terminology ("strategic autonomy" versus "European sovereignty"), and despite a strong political ambition displayed by Ursula Von der Leyen’s "Geopolitical Commission", some issues of tension persist. 

In a world increasingly dominated by superpowers like the United States, China, Russia and India, and revolving around power politics, European states stand a better chance by sticking together.

First, member states have struggled to agree on the most important threats facing Europe. As the 2017 French Defense and National Security Strategic Review put it: "geography and history remain important factors in the manner in which European states rank threats and risks". For example, there is a historical divide between many of the Baltic and Central European states that classify Russia as the main threat to European security, when other countries such as France, Spain, Italy or Greece look to the South, in the Mediterranean and Africa. A common analysis of threats facing Europe is nevertheless necessary if we are to move forward in cooperation on security and defense issues.

The Strategic Compass announced during the informal meeting of defense ministers in Zagreb in March 2020 and which is due to be adopted in early 2022, is a positive development in this regard - it is designed to concretise the EU’s level of ambition as a security provider, based on a common threat analysis. Flexible and pragmatic approaches such as within the European Intervention Initiative launched by 9 European states in 2018 (with 13 participating today), a purely intergovernmental framework to promote operational initiatives with willing (and able) countries, are also a step in the right direction in enabling member states to respond to joint threats. It allows for the emergence of a European strategic culture, and the reinforcement of Europeans’ ability to act together, while overcoming certain obstacles linked to collective decision-making and the rules of consensus inherent to the EU, to provide tailor-made solutions to crises in the short term. 

Another important question for European defense is its relationship to NATO. A number of countries within (and outside) the EU are wary of enhanced European defense cooperation because they perceive it as a threat to NATO and the partnership with the United States. But a stronger role for the EU in defense is not incompatible with NATO - on the contrary, it is a precondition for strengthening the transatlantic partnership, by enabling the EU to establish itself as a reliable and solid partner for the United States. Greater European defense cooperation must take place in conjunction with NATO, with the aim of strengthening the European pillar of the Atlantic Alliance. Joe Biden’s election provides an opportunity for the EU to show American partners that it can play a more active role in handling crises in its neighbourhood and be a more effective partner, especially at a time when the US is increasingly pivoting to Asia. 

Last - but not least - capability development lies at the heart of efforts to increase cooperation on defense issues. Strengthening European strategic autonomy requires the establishment and rationalization of a European defense industrial and technological base - while the European defense industry suffers overcapacity for historical reasons: the number of industrial players per major sector is five on average. Several instruments have been created since 2016 in order to pursue this goal: the Permanent Structured Cooperation, the European Defense Fund, the Coordinated Annual Review on Defense.

And there are a number of encouraging programs - at this stage mainly bi- or trilateral - demonstrating the desire to jointly build major systems for the future, not least of which the Future Combat Air System (FCAS). This French, German and Spanish project under development by Airbus, Thales Group, Indra Sistemas and Dassault Aviation, deserves to be highlighted. This success is however overshadowed by the arrival of a competing project from other European countries led by the UK, Tempest. Moreover, the reduction from 13 billion to 7 billion euros dedicated to the European Defense Fund for the period 2021-2027 shows a lack of European ambition. And the economic crisis we are facing risks further cutting the budget the EU will devote to European defense. 

Joe Biden’s election provides an opportunity for the EU to show American partners that it can play a more active role in handling crises in its neighbourhood and be a more effective partner, especially at a time when the US is increasingly pivoting to Asia.

A more federating approach for France 

France plays a special role in advocating for increased European defense cooperation due to its position, after Brexit, as the only country in the Union to have the status of permanent member of the UN Security Council, nuclear weapons, a full-spectrum Armed Forces model and a capability for forcible entry in a complex theatre of operations. However, its positioning on this matter is often misunderstood by its European partners, especially on the issue of how EU defense can complement NATO - which was not facilitated by Macron’s statement that NATO was "brain dead". France must clarify its doctrine in this regard and highlight its role as a model player in the Atlantic Alliance. 

It is imperative that we explain and clarify our discourse, and improve our communication with Brussels and European capitals in order to strengthen alliances and reduce misunderstandings - which could be exploited by States that do not share European interests. Rather than trying to impose the French vision on our partners, who do not always share our analysis of the strategic context, we should work to build a common strategic culture. This requires a better understanding and consideration of the sensitivities of our partners on these issues. It is with this in mind that we have decided to allow experts from six European countries (Slovakia, Greece, Finland, Germany, Poland and Italy) to share their views on the challenges facing the construction of a stronger European defense cooperation. 

 

Copyright : Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP

 

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