The European Union has been facing turbulent geopolitical moments outside as well as inside its own borders. These factors have prompted the EU’s key personalities to become more outspoken about what they see as a key step in making the EU a truly global player: developing its own defense capabilities so that the EU can project military power and act collectively as a military force.
These goals have been recently voiced by French President Emanuel Macron. The question remains as to how many allies among the European countries he has.
While the perception of the need for stronger defense capabilities of the European Union seems to go unchallenged, member states can’t agree on the scope, goals or structure this cooperation should have. The internal divergence of the different blocs within the EU remains and has manifested itself in the approach to Russia, Turkey and the migration crisis, all of which have ignited fierce debates on the extent and direction of the involvement that the EU should provide.
Is Europe Ready to Do More on Security Matters?
The political guidelines for the next European Commission speak of the attempt for a genuine European Defence Union within the next five years. However, given different defense priorities and eagerness for integration among member states, the path forward is not yet really clear.
United in Goal, Divided in Scope and Direction
European defense integration divides member states even within the usually cohesive blocs. Take, for example, central and Eastern Europe, which can be split among the Baltic states, Poland and Romania on one hand, and the remaining V4 countries — Slovenia, Croatia and Bulgaria — on the other. They not only have different perceptions toward Russia as their main threat, but also attitudes toward NATO. For instance, while central Europe is strongly influenced by the proximity of the Russian threat and looks to NATO for its security, Eastern Europe has lukewarm views on Russia due to its critical positions toward the EU.
At the same time, all of these groups are cautious about transferring more power to Brussels, as they do not hold high levels of trust toward France or Germany, albeit for different reasons. They are still at odds with the ambitions of the bigger EU countries, such as France and Germany, which believe that they should focus on developing common European defense structures.
The security and the defense threats arose after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its activities in the Eastern Ukraine, the migration crisis from the Middle East and Northern Africa, and have peaked at the worsening of relations with the traditional guarantor of European security — the United States.
With the establishment of the office of the high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy and the increasing voices calling for greater European responsibility, the EU has met the obvious problem: the implementation of these ambitions in practice. To elaborate on the immortal line that with great power comes great responsibility, it should be added that with the assumption of such responsibility, one needs to have actual power. For Europe this means creating military and defense capabilities and interoperability between the European military equipment. In addition, there needs to be an establishment of the organizational structure that would also define the priorities that European defense should fulfil.
The main blocs have different ideas regarding not just the specific projects of defense cooperation, framework of the new defense strategy, response to the recent rifts with the US or the level of the strategic autonomy that the EU should be striving for. This provides numerous options for the European Union to go forward. The EU can either become united behind a centralized approach of the leading countries or have the form of a “coalition of the willing.” It can focus on complementing NATO in specific areas on the ground or become a replacement for it.
There have been discussions, even among experienced military personnel across Europe, disagreeing about the key steps needed to motivate the EU countries to put their money where their mouths are. Furthermore, there is a level of disagreement — and resulting distrust — between the eastern/northern tier of the EU/NATO countries focusing more on the NATO platform and setting their eyes on Russia, and the southern/western tier preferring a more supranational approach with greater stress on migration aspects and the Mediterranean region. The two groups of countries have different historical narratives, so overcoming the split may prove to be a difficult task.
The EU-NATO nexus has been undergoing several problems since Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidency entered the picture. What is more, the structure of EU-NATO cooperation has to be established in light of the non-EU European members, like Norway or, soon perhaps, the United Kingdom. There will have to be a clear division of responsibility, even as President Macron makes a statement about the clinical death of NATO.
The irony of this situation is that a push by President Trump to make the NATO countries fulfil their obligations may be beneficial to motivating the countries to be more active in finding prospective projects of cooperation with other EU members as they are operating with a higher budget. But without a strategy, there is a considerable agreement that this approach will fail to achieve its objectives.
The current activities of the EU focus on soft security missions, from the Balkans to Africa, while the key flagship initiative is the Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO — a multi-layered and multi-purpose initiative that has the potential of forming the foundation of a credible EU defense force. Further steps will also have to include the creation of a directorate general for defense and more financial commitments in terms of defense cooperation.
The last of the structural developments that will have a definite impact is the formation of the European Defence Fund (EDF), which aims to increase member states’ investment in defense research to improve interoperability of the different national defense forces. It is expected that the budget allocated to the EDF under the EU’s next Multiannual Financial Framework will reach €13 billion ($14.3 billion). The use of this fund will be contested by different groups of European countries. Other points of contention would be active initiatives such as the European Intervention Initiative (EI2), led by France.
Despite these internal disagreements on shape and size, it will probably be engagement outside of EU borders that proves critical in deciding whether the EU can ever truly act externally as a single force.
*[This article is published within GLOSBEC DIFF GOV — European Governance: Potential of Differentiated Cooperation project supported by Jean Monnet Activities of the EU Programme Erasmus+.
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