The idea of creating a European defense structure independent from NATO had been floated for some time. It was a topic for discussion but no concrete steps had been taken to make it come true. It appears to be changing now after US President Trump apparently made no mention of Article 5 or collective defense during the May 25 NATO summit, which stunned his European allies. «Trump Leaves NATO» was the Carnegie Endowment’s assessment of the event. No such thing had ever happened before. But it is providing a powerful incentive for the Europeans to push ahead with plans to convert words into deeds. German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Europeans “to take our destiny in our hands” and warned that the United States was no longer a reliable partner. Her words marked a turning point.
The first thing German and French defense chiefs did right after the summit was to launch a joint initiative to create a European security force. The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) is at the core of the effort. PESCO is a mechanism allowing willing countries to launch joint security projects without requiring all EU member states to agree or participate. The Initiative has been supported by the EU executive branch of power.
On June 7, the European Commission proposed a new common defense fund to reverse billions of euros in defense cuts to let governments club together to develop and buy new helicopters and planes at lower costs, also opening the door to new drones, cyberwarfare systems and other hi-tech gear. The measure would help Europe stand alone as a global military power as the ties with the US get more strained.
The EU executive is mobilizing €39 ($43, 8) billion by 2027 to support the joint development of military capabilities. Together with national contributions, the Commission expects to mobilize €5.5 ($6, 2) billion per year after 2020. National governments will identify jointly with the European Defence Agency what military capabilities should be prioritized.
The EU estimates it loses up to a €100 ($112, 3) billion a year on duplication, leaving it with far fewer capabilities than the US. Europe has 37 types of armoured personnel carriers and 12 types of tanker aircraft compared to nine and four respectively in the United States, according to EU analysis. For the future, an idea of a common European defense bond for joint purchases has been floated, though no decisions have been taken so far.
The Commission has also presented a reflection paper that hopes to kick off the process of articulating a political vision on three possible scenarios for the development of nascent cooperation on defense. One of the options foresees a mutual assistance clause to respond to external attacks, sharing the cost of expensive military assets, and the EU’s «high-end security and defence operations» with a greater level of integration of national defence forces. It envisages the creation of «pre-positioned permanently available forces» for rapid deployment «on behalf of the union,» as well as a European border and coast guard relying on joint intelligence assets, such as remotely piloted aircraft systems or satellites. All these measures would enable the bloc to run high-end operations in hostile environments.
The European Union’s defense fund idea, which still needs to be approved by governments and the European Parliament, is part of an emerging network of proposals that EU leaders are set to consider at a summit in Brussels on June 22-23. The European Union is setting up a military headquarters – the Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) – for training missions abroad. It wants to make it easier to use its EU battlegroups that have never been put to action.
The 13 battalion-sized battle groups were envisioned as small, collective defense forces ready for rapid response to developing crises anywhere in the world. Declared fully operational in 2007, they have never deployed due to political and financial considerations. In 2013, European leaders drew up plans to send a battle group to the Central African Republic to help avert the developing civil war there, but the UK strongly opposed the idea to make it be swept under the rug. The plans will be revived when Estonia assumes the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU on July 1. The Estonian government says one of its main priorities will be securing common funding for the battle groups. Today, the nations comprising each battle group cover their own costs.
Actually, the new decisions dovetail with the Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign And Security Policy adopted a year ago when Brexit hit the headlines, meaning the staunchest opponent of European defense was leaving the bloc thus paving the way for implementation of the European defense concept. The document says it is highly desirable for Europeans to build foreign policy, security, and defense capabilities instead of relying solely on the United States for protection and global services.
The meaning is obvious – the EU must develop the capability to carry out its own military operations without Americans. Allocating military resources to an independent European structure will greatly weaken NATO. But the idea of a European military independent from the US is gaining traction. If the idea goes through, arrangements could allow Norway, a NATO member outside the EU, to contribute, while Sweden and Finland, EU members outside NATO, might find an EU alliance preferable to one that crosses the Atlantic.
In the past, EU members have been dragged into conflicts, like Afghanistan and Iraq, that had no relation to European security in order to demonstrate solidarity with America. If implemented, the European defense concept will allow it to give priority to European rather than transatlantic security interests – for instance, creating a EU border force to counter the refugee problem. Europe is facing multiple threats in its strategic neighborhood, while the US is moving to Asia. Better relations with Russia would be an additional bonus for a EU security alliance independent from US-dominated NATO. United by common threats to the European continent, the two could more easily reduce tensions and mistrust.
With the US and Europe apparently going separate ways, NATO will be weakened and a new pattern of European security will emerge. This process has been launched and it’s hardly likely it will be stopped.
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About the author
Alex Gorka is a defense and diplomatic analyst