The EU and the NATO: Planned obsolescence?

, by Rémi Laurent, Translated by Juuso Järviniemi

The EU and the NATO: Planned obsolescence?
Spanish frigate participating in the EU counter-piracy operation at the Somalian coast in April 2013. CC Flickr / European Union Naval Force Somalia Operation Atalanta

After an eventful electoral cycle that saw a populist’s ascent to power in the United States and the failure of his counterparts on the Old Continent, Europe can be certain about one thing: nothing is like it used to be. It is in this context that the seventh edition of the Ateliers de la Citadelle discussions, which have become a can’t-miss event for discussing the Europe of defence, took place in Lille, France.

Les ateliers de la citadelle, 2017

The seventh edition of the workshop co-organised by the Lille Mayor’s office, the Notre Europe–Jacques Delors institute, and the Rapid Reaction Corps had “Europe facing all the crises” as its theme. The theme was approached in two main roundtable discussions. The first one of them was called “NATO/EU: planned obsolescence”. Indeed, the relationship between the NATO and the EU has always been complicated, one of both complementarity and competition.

Mutual alliance or a necessary evil?

For the majority of European countries, “the Europe of defence” has always been about the NATO. Even if accession to the European Union was a sign of full integration into the European family, joining the NATO was Eastern European countries’ priority. For the Central and Eastern European countries that had pulled away from the Russian orbit, accession to the NATO was a guarantee of their independence. Above all, it was the protection of the American military umbrella that these countries sought, and are still seeking.

But that was then, wasn’t it? Before the election of Donald Trump who has publicly declared that he wants the EU to implode. Capable of starting a trade war or a diplomatic crisis with a single tweet, the American President isn’t seen as a viable ally by Europeans. Hence, after the G7 summit in Taormina in Sicily, Angela Merkel who spoke at a CDU rally in Munich announced that Europe could no longer rely on the United States in the field of defence: “The era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent. That’s what I experienced over the past several days.”

It’s the money that matters

If Europe can no longer rely on the United States of America for its defence, it has no choice but to defend itself. As the number-one commercial power in the world, Europe has the means to finance its own defence, but at the moment only two European countries can defend themselves – that is, France and the United Kingdom. And Brexit won’t help. Even if the armed forces consider the UK an indispensable partner in the field of defence, one will have to do without it.

The question of funds arises. France has for many years affirmed that it will reach the target of spending two percent of its GDP on the military (without the National Gendarmerie being factored in), without doing so. Emmanuel Macron, who reaffirmed the pledge, delayed the delivery and started off his mandate by cutting the defence budget with €850 million. General de Villiers, invited to a hearing with the defence committee of the National Assembly, announced to the deputies that the budget cut was incompatible with the objectives assigned to the French armed forces. These objections, despite being made behind closed doors, were enough for the President who left the general with no choice but to resign.

As for Germany, Angela Merkel, who has a notorious relationship to Donald Trump, has publicly declared that Germany would reach the two-percent target. In concrete terms, this would mean more than doubling the defence budget which would increase from €39 billion to €85 billion. The question is how to spend the money while conforming to the German doctrine of limited interventionism, and of peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. Another question is that of getting German soldiers to operate the unused equipment, considering the lack of credits for purchasing spare parts. If increased spending boosts the appetite for more, efficient spending becomes an issue – an aspect close to Germans’ hearts.

European army, just a dream?

The failure of the European Defence Community dampened the idea of a European army for decades, and it still remains inconceivable to a large part of the military forces. But an increasing proportion of the youth finds the idea of having 27 European armies almost as stupid as passing through a customs clearance point. It is appropriate to note that there is a generational gap between the young generation and their elders.

Critics of the idea of a European army will emphasise that such an idea is not conceivable without a power bearing responsibility for sending men to their deaths. One can retort that the euro found its way into Europeans’ pockets without there existing real budgetary coordination or solidarity, as evidenced by the sovereign debt crisis. With Europe’s back against the wall, it was necessary to come up with European financial instruments to overcome the otherwise insoluble problems. If we could put the cart before the horse with the euro, why couldn’t we do the same thing with defence?

Even if one ignored the question of moral responsibility for the deaths of soldiers, where should we begin? A joint headquarters? The British, who still aren’t out, have always blocked new initiatives on this topic. Joint training? The idea is progressing, but without a lot of results to date.

So many questions, and they all arrive at the same problem: sovereignty and its indirect corollary, diplomacy. Europe does have a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, but the political weight of Federica Mogherini is laughable. It would therefore be convenient for Europeans to find a field which doesn’t pose too many problems of sovereignty, but which could still serve as a starting point.

Sirens of the sea

A continent with a continuous shoreline, surrounded by seas and oceans to the North, the West and the South, Europe seems to have forgotten to turn towards the water, too concentrated on fearing Russia, its Eastern neighbour.

However, in the last few years, it has been at sea that Europe has seen its greatest successes, with the counter-piracy Operation Atalanta around the Horn of Africa. This success, largely passed in silence, has been concealed by the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, located closer to the European continent.

The sea could offer Europe a way to enter into the military domain without it posing problems to European countries. This is, in the first place, because the navy operates in the high seas, in international waters where questions of sovereignty are not very present.

Secondly, not all European countries have a sealine, which allows some to use that to justify their non-participation while avoiding blocking others. Notably, Austria could appeal to its landlockedness to avoid putting its neutrality into question. Thirdly, since there is no ongoing conflict at sea, the risk of losses would be reduced. The principal maritime hotspots are located in Asia, essentially in the South China Sea, that is to say far away.

The navy also appears to be the ideal tool for beginning the structuring of a European military force because apart from France, which possesses a full range of equipment, including its Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, Europeans are starting with a nearly clean slate in the field. Naval fleets have essentially been dismantled by European countries which, although they have warships, no longer boast the glorious navies of the old days.

The navy also has the advantage or the drawback of being extremely costly. Acquiring a carrier battle group is in a sense a privilege of the rich. Only two countries in the world have a carrier battle group worthy of that name, with an aircraft carrier equipped with a catapult: France and the United States. Other countries, such as the UK, Russia or China, have aircraft carriers with angled flight decks, designed for aeroplanes with reduced capacity for action. Moreover, with 29 different types of warships compared with only four used by the US Navy, there are savings to be made for Europe.

The establishment of a carrier battle group would also allow for the resolution of the question of European capacities for intervention, since it would be possible to intervene without staying in the conflict zone. In a word, it would be the ideal tool. Each country could contribute at its own level by providing depot ships, destroyers, aeroplanes, training capacity or other necessary elements.

Finally, the establishment of a real European fleet would allow us to address another European major problem: the migration situation that has transformed the Mediterranean into a cemetery at the gates of Europe – a theme that was at the heart of the other roundtable discussion at the 2017 edition of the Ateliers de la Citadelle.

This is a translated version of the original French article, published on Le Taurillon. View the original version here.

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