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The Worrisome EU Defense Union

The Worrisome EU Defense Union

In 2016, the EU put forward a new vision and a new plan for a “Defense Union”. The proposals are supported mainly by France and Germany[1] – Europe’s most notable military powers. France and Germany are also the two major continental contributors to NATO’s defense system. Presently, both of these European states look for a more substantial “European defense” structure by and for Europeans, but certainly not excluding NATO. While the French loudly claim that the current EU proposal was initially a French one, the German side has more interest in its success. The team of France and Germany is mainly an alliance of common pragmatic interests rather than of a common political will. Germany’s defense industry is in a better situation, while the French one is hindered by the country’s stagnating economy (i.e., the French deficit issue due to EU’s macroeconomic governance requirements).

A conceptual clarification is necessary. The EU is now promoting a “Defense Union” – a common security and military framework of European cooperation. Not an actual “army”.

Should the EU have openly called for an actual “common army”, perhaps political support would have been even lower than it has thus far and the main NATO sponsor, the USA, would have been honestly baffled by the very idea.

Credible European politicians are very careful about the choice of words in this matter. They will openly speak of a common security space and common defense capabilities: a “Defense Union”; they will avoid the words “European army”. However, political correctness or calculated hypocrisy aside, the EU itself is honestly hoping to develop an actual army at its command. It is just that its member states have different views about it.

Credible European politicians are very careful about the choice of words in this matter. They will openly speak of a common security space and common defense capabilities: a “Defense Union”; they will avoid the words “European army”.

Nevertheless, the matter of a European Defense Union is largely complex and it is not based on a firm political consensus. The major issue is that of NATO relegation. Would such an EU Defense Union be an integral part of the NATO system or a complement to NATO, and thus not fully integrated into NATO’s architecture? 

The EU vision and proposals 

Ever since the famous French leader Charles de Gaulle sought to foster an operational European defense capacity, linked to NATO’s capabilities, the matter of a common armed force has been widely debated across Europe. What was accomplished through time was the EU Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP)[2] – a framework for EU political and military structures and for military and civilian missions abroad. The CSDP is an integral part of EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The CSDP has undergone major strategic and operational changes. Faced with new security and political challenges, the CSDP is bound to evolve. From a legal stand-point, the new proposals dwell on articles 42 to 46 of the EU Functioning Treaty. The new EU Defense Union is being developed upon the existing CSDP.

Mr. Juncker insisted that Europe should resist US pressure to increase spending for defense purposes. The new US President, Donald Trump, suggested he could withdraw support if European NATO allies do not raise defense spending to at least 2% of their GDPs. Juncker mentioned that: “this has been the American message for many, many years. I am very much against letting ourselves be pushed into this”.

In June 2016, the new Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy was presented to the European Council – the highest political forum of the EU – by High Representative Federica Mogherini. The EU Global Strategy identifies five priorities for EU foreign policy:

  • the security of the Union;
  • state and societal resilience to the East and South of the EU;
  • the development of an integrated approach to conflicts;
  • cooperative regional orders;
  • global governance for the 21st century.

On 14 November 2016, the EU Council was presented with an Implementation Plan on Security and Defence, meant to apply the vision set out in the Strategy. The Plan identifies three sets of policy priorities for each CSDP mission:

  • responding to external conflicts and crises;
  • capacity building of partners;
  • protecting the Union and its citizens.

The EU Plan sets out 13 specific proposals. The most consistent are the following:

  • a coordinated annual review of defence spending in the EU;
  • a better EU rapid response, including through the use of EU Battlegroups;
  • a new single Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) for those EU states willing to undertake more commitments on defense matters.

On its side, The European Parliament backed these new steps and called for sufficient funding and coordinated investments to be made in these regards. The European Commission special advisor on defense matters, Mr. Michel Barnier, called for the EU to set up a 3 to 4 billion euro defense budget.

But the defense ministers in the Council of the EU have backed only a minimalist plan, due to sharp differences over how far it should go[3].

Recently, in a rather daring declaration, the President of the European Commission, Mr. Juncker, rejected American pressure for increased European contributions to NATO. Mr. Juncker insisted that Europe should resist US pressure to increase spending for defense purposes. The new US President, Donald Trump, suggested he could withdraw support if European NATO allies do not raise defense spending to at least 2% of their GDPs. Juncker mentioned that: “this has been the American message for many, many years. I am very much against letting ourselves be pushed into this”. It is a bold statement from the EU leader that highlights the climate of misunderstanding in the Euro-Atlantic family[4]. Whether Jean-Claude Juncker was a bit too forward with his disdain for Donald Trump or he deliberately sent a message that he is very much supportive of the EU Defense Union, the situation is not satisfactory for many European countries that now face additional pressure regarding their own vision on the common security plans and commitments. 

The EU’s reasons 

Let’s look at the inside story. What are EU’s reasons and goals for these proposals? How should they be read? 

  1. Rising euro-scepticism and nationalism 

This determines EU proponents to push for new policy areas. Defense policies are usually accessible to a larger audience and generate passionate debates – it gets people interested and talking about it. This is what the EU punctuates now: “positive populism” – a concept that it has coined recently in order to combat nationalism and scepticism. If “soft” policies, such as economic integration, social justice, immigration and an even more inclusive society for various minorities, are losing their appeal to the masses and the elites, the EU is eyeing “harder” policies, such as security and defense, to broaden its popular support. It becomes easier to inspire mainstream supporters when foreign enemies are pointed at and vilified: Putin’s Russia, Trump’s conservatism, nationalism, radicalism, etc. 

  1. Economics 

The European defense industry needs to produce and to export its products inside and outside the continent. The pooling of resources, including financial ones, to boost military research and production facilities across Europe is a main priority of the new Defense Union project. As long as Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, Belgium and other European countries compete for weaponry and defense technologies, brotherly competition will not facilitate their interests against global competitors. Already, the UK leaving the bloc is a blow to the European avionics sector. 

  1. The Trump factor 

Probably the only serious reason for a European Defense Union is the Trump factor. The new Washington Administration has issued conflicting messages about the USA’s commitment to NATO, especially in the case of Europe. In order to calm his mainstream political supporters, Trump has constantly reassured them that he will stay committed to the existing arrangements. But he has also made numerous statements that he will diminish the American military effort and commitment in Europe, unless the Europeans step up their own commitments and expenditure for NATO. Several EU leaders fear that a potential contraction of the American involvement on the continent would generate a security void that would need to be addressed. This is a root cause of the 2017 NATO Warsaw Summit joint declaration that calls for a strong political commitment and a renewed trans-Atlantic bond[5]

  1. Deeper integration of the EU 

The defense sector was mainly untouched by new regulation and policies promoted by Brussels over the past decade. A true “Union” would not be credible without a better “integration” of the defense structures and capabilities. Rising global security concerns and conventional political wisdom have emboldened the EU to finally address this “issue”. The pretexts are abundant and convenient: Putin, Trump, Erdoğan, rising China, Ukraine’s failed state status, terrorist attacks, refuges and the “more Europe” fatigue of most member states. 

Divided opinions, insufficient consensus 

NATO officials have not been fond of these EU initiatives. NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, has repeatedly voiced his plea for an in-depth coordination with the Euro-Atlantic alliance before proceeding with a distinct continental approach to common security. This is because the establishment of a new command centre and new structures for the EU member states would eventually affect NATO’s credibility and its capacity to react effectively[6].

EU countries also share divided views over the matter.

The Baltics, Poland and Romania do not know what to make of a Franco-German driven Defense Union, unless European troops are actually garrisoned on their territories, with heavy equipment and facing East.

The Eastern EU member states feel pressured by Russia’s military might to strengthen NATO’s mechanisms and are significantly dependent on the USA’s commitments and capabilities in the alliance. For instance, the Baltics, Poland and Romania do not know what to make of a Franco-German driven Defense Union, unless European troops are actually garrisoned on their territories, with heavy equipment and facing East. These EU countries look for tangible advantages from this new defense structure.

Western EU states are interested in its adjacent benefits, such as: common investments in research and production capabilities, a joint management of air and cyber defense, common approaches to draft policies and joint missions outside the continent that would be, in their view, “complementary” to the already existing NATO capabilities.

Mediterranean EU states are interested mainly in an enhanced naval and air support to better deal with the immigration flow from North Africa and, eventually, to deal quickly with resurgent terrorism. They are also interested in spending less for building new capabilities.

Norway is interested in fostering its excellent geopolitical advantages within NATO, while being prudent about the EU defense alternative. On the other hand, Sweden looks to get even closer to NATO while exploring the new EU Defense Union as a convenient tool for its capable defense industry.

The UK has strongly opposed the idea from the very beginning. Its government warns that the initiative may easily threaten NATOs credibility and operability[7]. It is interesting to note that London has been alarmed recently with the mounting vulnerabilities in its own defense structures: the aging fleet of tactical submarines and vessels, the aging air fleet, aging ground forces heavy capabilities and a reduced arsenal of naval cruise missiles – all requiring significant repairs and maintenance. The UK is an official nuclear power, but its stockpile of usable warheads has diminished and it needs additional maintenance. For these reasons, Britain is interested in its own security agenda.

France sees the EU project as a means to preserve its influence in the key European affairs. Although its armed forces are more experienced in actual warfare, France’s economy is affected by the ongoing deficit issue. Still, it is a major contributor to NATO, a key partner of the US and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. As the UK is leaving the European bloc, France feels it is a rightful duty to strengthen its role in the EU. It is also looking at the economic advantages of the Defense Union for its own defense industry.

Germany sees the EU Defense Union as a natural projection of its own power in Europe and abroad. The Bundeswehr wants the future EU defense capabilities to match those of NATO. It wants at least the same amount of energy invested into the Defense Union as in NATO[8].

The fact is that Berlin has well-developed domestic capabilities, as well as research and production facilities. German weapons are well-sought after in the global market and are becoming more available in some conflict zones. As a consistent political goal, Germany wants to assume the lead role in Europe’s defense system. After Brexit, it seeks to enhance its authority over the political and security matters of the continent. The key element of its ambition is a very good “private” relationship with Russia; it is a “partnership” that relies on energy and global trade routes from East to West. Germany emerges as a convenient mediator between the US and Russia on the major European security matters. 

A tale of two armies: the NATO one and the EU one 

The matter of the joint EU battlegroups (that is: “tactical groups”) is rather interesting. And so are the following matters: the projected joint military HQ instead of the rotational command by the member states, the common defense budget, a new military academy or a European esprit de corps in national military schools and a permanent structured cooperation approach to common security. Would these new elements replace or complement the existing NATO ones?

As a consistent political goal, Germany wants to assume the lead role in Europe’s defense system. After Brexit, it seeks to enhance its authority over the political and security matters of the continent. The key element of its ambition is a very good “private” relationship with Russia; it is a “partnership” that relies on energy and global trade routes from East to West. Germany emerges as a convenient mediator between the US and Russia on the major European security matters.

Presuming that the EU Defense Union comes into full effect, let us imagine a potential scenario. NATO and EU member state Poland is attacked by Russia. The Russians, politely sticking to the letter of the laws and customs of war, shall formally declare war only on the EU; they will explicitly mention that NATO is not the enemy. The invading armed forces would enter Poland’s territory and engage the Polish army alone. This is where it becomes complicated. Let us assume that the invader does not target any civilian infrastructure and is fairly sticking to its formal war statement, engaging only military positions and bases. What would Poland do? Would it send forward its EU troops or its NATO committed units? Would it mobilize its entire armed forces, including the units under EU command and not under NATO command?

One wonders if there is an indelible bond between the NATO and the EU troops, such as: common maintenance basis, civilian suppliers, transport infrastructure, etc. If the attackers harm the common supply chain of the attacked EU/NATO nation, would this mean that an attack against the EU Defense Union would automatically become an attack against NATO? Certainly, this is what the future NATO-EU discussions will try to settle judicially as well as politically. 

Romania’s case 

On principle, Romania is supportive of the major EU policies. In this case, there are several major issues to consider: 

  1. Who pays for our army? 

The issue of the minimum 2% of GDP for the defense budget was a hallmark of NATO official discussion over the past years for all allied member nations. Our country is finally able to reach this target demanded by NATO. But it was not an easy task. Under the strict requirements of EU’s macroeconomic governance, such budgetary allocations should be consented by the European Commission. As our previous governments have expressed their intention to answer this NATO call, the EU expressed its disapproval for such a move; the EU remained in thrall to its pro-austerity principles and denied NATO’s interference in the budgetary decisions of its European member states. Only recently did the EU consent quietly to the “embattled” 2% of GDP for our defense budget. (Author’s note: it is likely that these new sums will be distributed mainly to personnel spending, salaries, pensions and various benefits for the military staff – but this is an already assumed decision and it does not come as a surprise. Actual military investments will pick up in the coming years.) So, who pays for our army? So far, we do. 

  1. The enhanced strategic partnership with USA    

Romania is part of the USA’s global security network of allies and friends. The most important component on our behalf is the Aegis Ashore system that has been placed recently under NATO command. There are other common grounds for this partnership. The key desired aspect for Romania would be an explicit provision from NATO or from a group of allied countries that would guarantee our territorial integrity and security. This is a classic matter when it comes to designing military alliances or “unions”. The EU does not explicitly guarantee the territorial integrity of its member states. 

  1. Capabilities matter 

A multinational unit was set up and placed under NATO command: the 2nd infantry brigade “Rovine” from Craiova. There are other units embedded in NATO’s structure: the new command centre in Bucharest and the new counterintelligence detachment etc. Would the new EU Defense Union require its member nations to allot new capabilities under a separate command structure?

In times of mounting uncertainties, no reasonable state would split its army in several (foreign, external) camps and under different command structures, unless it is a well-calculated or affordable move. 

  1. What if? 

What if one distant day the US withdraws from its Eastern European commitments? The new Republican administration bears the hallmark of conservatism and traditional isolationism. America is repositioning itself geopolitically. For the meantime, our American allies are strongly advising us to step up our own defense capabilities to meet our NATO commitments. 

Conclusion 

Sooner or later, the EU will push for its own actual army. It may succeed in imposing its will upon decaying sovereign member states. It is just that it will be a different EU – a more authoritarian and coercive “Europe”. It is unlikely that its foreign enemies would come to fear it.

The EU does not need a Defense Union at this time. It must consolidate its NATO dimension and should cater to its flagging perception at home. Currently, it is Germany and France who need an EU Defense Union, each for its own reasons.

Sooner or later, the EU will push for its own actual army. It may succeed in imposing its will upon decaying sovereign member states. It is just that it will be a different EU – a more authoritarian and coercive “Europe”. It is unlikely that its foreign enemies would come to fear it. 

[1] Andrew Rettman: France and Germany propose EU “defence union”, EUObsever [online], September 12, 2016: https://euobserver.com/foreign/135022.

[2] European Parliament: Common Security and Defence Policy (2016):

http://www.europarl.europa.eu/atyourservice/en/displayFtu.html?ftuId=FTU_6.1.2.html.

[3] EURACTIV.com with AFP: EU backs minimalist defence plan in effort not to undermine NATO, November 15, 2016: http://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/eu-backs-minimalist-defence-plan-in-effort-not-to-undermine-nato/.

[4] David Reid: EU president rejects Trump call for more NATO spending, CNBC [on-line], February 17, 2017: http://www.cnbc.com/2017/02/17/european-union-president-rejects-trump-call-for-more-nato-spending.html.

[5] Luigi Lonardo: EU-NATO Relations in the Era pf Trump and of the European Defense Union, E-international relations, [on-line], February 17, 2017: http://www.e-ir.info/2017/02/17/eu-nato-relations-in-the-era-of-trump-and-of-the-european-defence-union/.

[6] Peter Korzun: European Defense Union Independent from US and NATO: Reality or Pipedream?, The Strategic Culture Foundation, [on-line], August 16, 2016: http://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2016/08/16/european-defense-union-independent-from-us-nato-reality-pipedream.html.

[7] David Maddox: Veterans demand Brexit for Defense: Report says EU army ambitions could undermine NATO, Express.co.uk [on-line], March 17, 2017:

http://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/773827/Veterans-demand-Brexit-defence-report-EU-army-NATO.

[8] Euractiv.com with Reuters: German defense minister wants EU military to match NATO, November 8, 2016: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-eu-defence-idUSKBN1322GH.

 

Annex 1: Defence Expenditures of NATO Countries 2009-2016, (July 4, 2016): http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_132934.htm

Annex 2: 

 
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OEconomica No. 1, 2016