Crisis Insight : Perspectives of Defence in Europe

In a European Union that is becoming more and more fragmented, union in the field of security and defence appears to be an increasingly distant dream.

The European Union tries to tackle the fractures with a minilateralism that cannot lead to true military and strategic independence from the United States and NATO. The Europeans must hope that the withdrawal of the American commitment does not happen too quickly, leaving the continent at the mercy of Russia and China.

The European Union is going through a serious crisis of international credibility and internal trust. It certainly has significant geo-economic tools (the euro and a powerful trade network), yet the EU is unable to adopt a common strategy. Differences in interests and strategic culture between Member States prevent it from using its economic power as an instrument of foreign and security policy. Thus, after taking advantage of US military protection, the EU has also demilitarized culturally, continuing to rely on the effectiveness of this protection as it did during the cold war.

While Europe stands still, the rest of the world is evolving: tensions are increasing, especially in Asia, but also in the immediate periphery of Europe itself: from Ukraine to the Middle East to Africa and, potentially, also in the Balkans. The relative American disengagement intensifies the potential threat and Europe, powerless and increasingly divided, does not seem to know how to deal with them.

China is also increasing its influence in Europe, with 30 billion dollars in investments a year, compared to 6 billion dollars from the EU in China. Meanwhile, the “16 + 1” agreement is bringing down some states of Eastern Europe and the Balkans in the so-called “debt trap”. China is acquiring leadership in certain key technologies (electric cars and artificial intelligence) by replicating European technological advancements at a lower price.

DIVISION WITHIN EUROPE

In this scenario, the dream of the “founding fathers” of European political integration seems to have definitively disappeared. Multilateralism has given way to national approaches or, at least, to minilateralism: various agreements between a small number of EU member states that contribute to accentuating its fragmentation. Only the countries that share particular interests and have the capacity to make a significant contribution to their achievement participate in such initiatives.

The decisions to intervene or not, however, remain strictly national, also due to the growing dependence of foreign policy on domestic policy, a phenomenon certainly accentuated by social media. As social media have become more accessible, in terms of both Internet access and ease of use, it has become one means by which people, nonstate actors, and governments can share their foreign policy priorities in an effort to receive feedback, engage in diplomacy, educate people, and attempt to influence foreign policy outcomes.

Examples in this regard are the European Intervention Initiative (EII proposed by Macron in September 2018 and which Germany would like to bring back to the more multi-lateral PESCO, or Permanent European Structured Cooperation); the NOR DEFCO among the Scandinavian countries; the VISEGRAD agreements and those of the 2010 Lancaster House between France and the United Kingdom.

The same poor current level of integration, that the most realistic pro-Europeans strive to maintain, is placed at risk by many internal and external factors to the Union; in this way, new divisions are being caused and often resentments, exploited in the internal political struggle of the various states.

Among the internal fragmentation factors of the EU are to be mentioned:

  • the growth of populisms, nationalisms and “sovereignties” (evident in competition between Italy and France in Libya and the Sahel or in the tragicomedies relating to the distribution of migrants among the various countries);
  • the economic-financial divisions between north and south and the political-strategic divisions between East and West, the latter concerning relations with an increasingly assertive Russia;
  • the weakening of the Franco-German axis, which has always been the engine of European integration, due to the internal weaknesses of both Macron and Merkel;
  • the demographic decline, which weighs more on the economy than on security (more dependent on technology);
  • the “cultural disarmament” of Europe, in which public opinions are increasingly reluctant to use force, while they attribute miraculous importance to soft power;
  • Brexit, which is taking away from the European Union 21% of the total military budget, about 40% of research and development investments in the military field, and above all London’s decision-making capacity in the use of force and its fierce diplomacy, and so on.

A STRATEGIC CRISIS

Various external factors contribute to the crisis in political-strategic Europe.

Trump’s “America First” ideology and the doubts raised about the reliability of American protection. These scenarios have mitigated the value of American presence in Europe which, from the beginning, represented the most effective glue not only of security but also of European integration. Moreover, the progressive withdrawal of the United States from the Middle East and doubts on Washington’s real desire to subordinate compliance with Article 5 of the treaty establishing the alliance – that relating to the commitment to a common defense – to increase the European contribution to NATO to 2% of the GDP.

The perception of a relative American disengagement from the NATO – together with Brexit, which according to some would have facilitated European military integration which London had always opposed – was not used as an opportunity to create a European defense system.  This prospect would have required greater military spending and, above all, the resumption of the Taviani-Chaban-Delmas-Strauss project of the “European bomb”. This was a project, born in 1956 and then wrecked two years later, of an agreement between France, Germany and Italy by which these three countries intended to acquire nuclear weapons produced in common. Without this agreement, any European deterrent capability would remain in the dream book. It should have entailed greater responsibility on the part of Germany, which instead rejects it, also in order not to arouse unpleasant memories in Europe.

The Franco-German Treaty of Aachen, despite its high symbolic value (Aachen was the capital of the “Holy Roman Carolingian Empire”), reaffirmed the desire for cooperation of France and Germany, but produced only new councils, commissions, periodic meetings and exchanges of ministers.

Other factors include the increase in conflict also in the immediate eastern peripheries and southern Europeans, which have already been mentioned, tensions with Erdogan’s Turkey, which are jeopardizing the south-eastern pillar of the Union, although the EU remains the partner economic essential of Ankara and the greater aggressiveness of Putin’s Russia, perceived as a growing threat from Eastern Europe, while the Western states of the EU give priority to economic relations with Moscow.

Despite this, the EU was unanimous in confirming the sanctions against Russia for annexing Crimea, as well as aligning with those American sanctions against Iran, after Trump denounced the agreement on the nuclear proliferation of Tehran. The ability of the United States to impose its will on Europe remains effective, as it was in 1956 at the time of Suez. In fact, Europe is unable to have a global financial system independent of the United States.

Even at Trump’s announcement of wanting to exit the Atomic Disarmament Treaty, European states protested only mildly, even though it has been considered, since 1987, a pillar of European security as well as a symbol of peace in Europe. The European failure to react was motivated by resignation, that is, by the awareness of not being able to influence American decisions and also by the desire not to create further friction with Trump, further weakening Washington’s commitment to European security. Furthermore, a European stance could have induced the American president to withdraw the approximately 200 B61 nuclear bombs from Europe still deployed by NATO and of which the United States has foreseen in its grandiose plan for the modernization of nuclear forces (over $ 1 trillion invested in thirty years).

THE FUTURE OF PESCO

Determinant for European security, in the current decline of the liberal international order and the return to traditional power politics, remains the relationship between the EU and the NATO.

Three solutions have been proposed in this regard for a division of responsibilities between the two organizations:

  • the Alliance is interested in the tasks of article 5 of the Washington Treaty – that is, in dissuasion and common defence – impossible for Europe, despite the recurring fantasies of Europeanization of the “Force de Frappe”. Article 5 stipulates that if a NATO Ally is the victim of an armed attack, each and every other member of the Alliance will consider this act of violence as an armed attack against all members and will take the actions it deems necessary to assist the Ally attacked.
  • Western defence remains unitary, with NATO dealing with hard power, even in out-of-area and crisis management missions, while Europe is dedicated to the soft component;
  • NATO deals with threats from the east and Europe with those from the south.

However, these are unrealistic solutions and for this reason a compromise was opted for, which would allow Europe to use capacity created according to the Berlin Plus agreement, should the United States decide not to intervene.

It is not enough for the dreams of the European Common Foreign and Defence Policy, but this is what is possible. At its core, there remains the hope that the United States will not abandon Europe – a hope supported by Washington’s decision to strengthen defences born in the continent with the European Deterrence Initiative (formerly the European Reassurance Initiative) to which they dedicated 3.4 billion dollars in 2017, 4.8 in 2018 and 6.5 in 2019.

The most pragmatic European approach to security and defence problems is represented by the PESCO, the European Defence Fund (EDF) and the various agreements that have been called “minilateral”, which have been mentioned earlier.

It should be emphasized that all attempts to create a common security and defence policy of the European Union have so far failed: the Battle Groups set up in 2007 have never been used; operations such as the anti-piracy “Atlanta” or “Sophia” in the central Mediterranean are more of a facade than of substance; in the same intervention in the Sahel there remain profound differences between the various participating States. The French, present in the region with the Barkhane operation, try not to have the Italians among their feet, who would instead want to counter the flow of migrants. In fact, Paris fears that it will provoke attacks on its soldiers since migrant smuggling is an important source of income for the tribes and also for local governments.

The impact that the EDF will have (23 billion euros in the 2021-2027 cycle of the EU budget to which the 14.3 of the European Peace Facility must be added) in reducing the current duplications and diseconomies in the armament programs and for the development of new technologies in Europe is completely uncertain. Many think that its real goal is to get other EU countries to finance Franco-German programs. In addition, national interests play a powerful role in the distribution of EDF funds, preventing truly effective agreements. The result is that different, often non-interoperable, weapon systems will remain in service in the EU. Thus the European intervention capacities will continue to be very limited, not only due to the difficulties of political-strategic agreements, but also from a purely technical point of view. There is nothing to suggest that the situation will change in the short to medium term. Even in limited operations such as those in Libya in 2011, Europe cannot act without the American support. It will not be able to do so until the largest European country, Germany, assumes the leadership of the common defence, a fact to which, as mentioned above, not only the Germans, but also many other European countries are opposed, if only “for the weight of history “.

This is why the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy will remain a fantasy and that European security will continue to depend on NATO. If the Alliance collapsed, there would be no other solution for Europeans than a sort of “finlandisation” towards Moscow: that is, a strengthening of the capacity to increase costs and decrease the benefits of aggression by organizing an operational defence of the territory, on the Swiss or Scandinavian model. On the deterrence offered by France with its force de frappe, after all, no one can reasonably rely. Not even Germany can do it. The Aachen Treaty does not represent a step towards a European army. Its value is symbolic. Politically it represents a reaffirmation of the founding fathers’ ideals about European integration, countering the growing Eurosceptic and “sovereign” tendencies in Europe. Italy felt excluded from it. The current tensions – especially with the French – exclude the possibility of concluding the Quirinal Treaty, proposed by Couve de Murville after the conclusion of the Franco-German one of the Elysée and resumed by Macron in 2017.

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