EU Military Cooperation and National Defense

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by Daniel Keohane, senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich

Since the U.K.’s vote to leave the EU in June 2016, a plethora of new initiatives to bolster EU military cooperation have emerged. There is some political opportunism at play here. For one, the other 27 EU governments are keen to display some unity. They also want to show that the EU re- mains relevant for their citizens, especially for their security. But there is also an increasing awareness among EU governments that they sometimes need to fend for themselves. EU governments want NATO—meaning the United States—to con- tinue to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. However, the migrant crisis to the south of Europe has resulted in the EU sending military ships into Mediterra- nean waters to tackle people smuggling, while the EU has also stemmed piracy on the waters off Somalia, and is helping Sahel countries like Mali counter terrorism.

EU Military Cooperation
Another Framework for National Governments

The EU, like NATO, is encouraging greater European military cooperation, not only to help avoid excessive fragmentation or duplication of European col- laborative efforts, but also to coordinate and support disparate national policies. However, European military cooperation is mainly driven by the merging of na- tional defense policies in various different ways rather than by the efforts of Eu- ropean (or transatlantic) institutions. This represents a potential for greater con- vergence or divergence of national policies that will determine the future success or failure of European military cooperation.

European governments are increasingly picking and choosing which forms of military cooperation they wish to pursue, depending on the capability project or operation at hand. Sometimes they act through the EU and/or NATO, but almost all European governments are using other formats as well, whether re- gional, bilateral, or ad hoc coalitions of the willing. The combination of more complex security crises and reduced resources has meant that European govern- ments are more focused on their core national interests than before, and both are more targeted and flexible on how they wish to cooperate.

As shown during the 2016 EU referendum debate in the U.K., there is a lot of confusion over what EU defense policy is and what it is not. Catchall phrases such as “European army” are easily misunderstood, and do not reflect the reality of what EU defense policy is about. Part of the reason for this confusion is that EU defense policy is not a defense policy, let alone a plan to create an army under the centralized control of the EU institutions in Brussels. The EU is also not a military alliance in the way that NATO defends territory from attack by external states. Instead, the military component of EU security policies is commonly re- ferred to as “EU defense policy.”

The EU’s military efforts are mainly focused on international security be- yond the EU’s borders, and are carried out through the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) framework, which is housed within the EU’s foreign policy structures—alongside efforts to help EU governments spend their defense monies more effectively. It is more accurate to refer to EU “military policy” or “military cooperation” than EU “defense policy.”

NATO is the collective defense bedrock for most EU governments, and this will not change in the face of Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. However, the Atlantic Alliance cannot be everywhere, and Europeans increasingly have to cope with some security challenges by themselves, without help from the United States. Acting through the EU, therefore, is a useful strategic option for EU member states.

In addition, it is important to remember that national governments are in charge of EU military policies, and that those policies are voluntary. National armed forces will remain national, and EU governments decide their own defense budgets, whether or not they wish to cooperate with others and how; and whether or not they wish to participate in EU operations. The European Commission is trying to play a stronger supporting role to those intergovernmental EU policies, having developed a European Defense Fund that will offer financial incentives for cooperation projects, and agreeing that some of its vast civil scientific research projects should have military applications to supplement feeble national defense research and technology spending.

It is the intergovernmental initiatives that matter most politically, for ex- ample the use of a mechanism in the EU treaties that would allow a smaller group of countries to cooperate more closely on military matters. This mechanism, known as Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), formally launched in mid-December 2017. In principle, the PESCO clause makes a lot of sense. Those member states that meet a set of capability-based entry criteria can choose to cooperate more closely after securing a majority vote. Military capabilities and ambitions vary widely among the member states; therefore, the EU could rely on a smaller group of the most willing and best-prepared countries to run its more demanding military missions.

The nub of the PESCO debate revolved around quality versus quantity, with France preferring the former and Germany the latter. A focus on military quality would mean that some member states would face exclusion. Politically this would be a counter-intuitive move, when 27 EU governments are trying to maintain their unity and solidarity following the British decision to leave the EU. Indeed 25 out of the remaining 27 EU governments are participating in PESCO (Malta has not yet joined, and Denmark does not participate in EU military coopera- tion). However, emphasizing quantity, involving almost all EU governments in PESCO, shows that the entry criteria are so easy as to offer no obvious new mili- tary value beyond what member states are already providing. In addition, it has become a cliché to observe that Europeans greatly need to up their military game. PESCO, originally conceived in the early 2000s, was a mechanism to create a mili- tary vanguard for the EU (led by France and the U.K.). However, since almost all EU governments will now participate, the PESCO grouping is no longer a vanguard.

France and Germany: Alliance or Army?

In a major speech on Europe’s future in September 2017, French President Macron outlined a number of proposals for EU military cooperation.1 His main military objective is enabling Europeans to act autonomously when needed, complementing NATO’s territorial defense role with a European capacity to in- tervene abroad, particularly to the South of Europe (known as the European In- tervention Initiative). Macron had three headline proposals: establishing “a com- mon intervention force, a common defense budget, and a common doctrine for action.”2 Macron’s proposals for a common military force and defense budget are likely to generate more headlines than his idea of a shared military doctrine. This is because they sound like the European army idea so beloved by some federalist politicians (and so loathed by some Euro-skeptics).

In fact, his proposals are more akin in spirit to building a de facto military al- liance from the bottom-up, which would include many forms of inter-governmental military cooperation, than establishing a top-down federal EU army directed by the institutions in Brussels. Macron wants to supplement the instinctive Atlanticism of most EU governments on military matters by strengthening their Euro- pean intuition.

Moreover, the new French defense white book, published since Macron’s Sorbonne speech, suggests that not all aspects of this intervention initiative have to be implemented by the EU.3 The Eurocorps, a multinational force based at Strasbourg, for example, is available to the EU and/or NATO, but it is not an EU force. While much of the current focus in Germany is on developing EU pro- cesses for military cooperation, France is more interested in effective policies over particular frameworks—whether through the EU, NATO, or ad hoc arrange- ments. However, developing an effective shared military doctrine could prove much more difficult than establishing a joint force or common budget. For one, an effective military doctrine should help armed forces to plan, train, and operate together, drawing on an assessment of threats and capabilities. Ideally, military doctrines orient armed forces for successfully coping with future contingencies— no small task.

For another, developing a national doctrine involves a host of actors, from ministries and armed forces. Combining the disparate perspectives of EU govern- ments is even more challenging. Because of their very different strategic cultures, the danger is that EU governments would produce a dysfunctional doctrine in practice. For instance, the glaring gap between French and German attitudes to military interventions abroad is well known. Also, in contrast to many German politicians, no French president would call for a “European army” (with its feder- alist overtones). France prefers a strong Europe de la défense, meaning a full-blown intergovernmental EU military alliance—led by France.

The central strategic importance of NATO for Germany is strongly empha- sized in the 2016 German security white paper, which says, “only together with the United States can Europe effectively defend itself against the threats of the 21st century and guarantee a credible form of deterrence. NATO remains the anchor and main framework of action for German security and defense policy.”4That German white paper also says that EU members should aim to create a “European Security and Defense Union” in the long term.5 However, it is not entirely clear what the implications of such an eventual European defense union would be in practice. For example, would it mean greater military integration under the control of national governments or ultimately via the Brussels-based EU institutions?

In sum, there are some major differences in strategic culture between Berlin and Paris. For one, France, which is a nuclear-armed permanent member of the UN Security Council, has a special sense of responsibility for global security, and is prepared to initiate international military interventions if necessary. Germany, in contrast, will only react in coalition with others, and remains much more reluc- tant than France to deploy robust military force abroad. Even though militarily Germany is doing more—spending more and cooperating more compared to before—the domestic political constraints on German defense policy remain considerable.6

Moreover, Berlin and Paris do not necessarily agree on the precise meaning of concepts they have both signed up to in EU documents—such as “strategic autonomy”—or even the end goal of EU defense policy. Germany’s calls for a “European Defense Union” or “European army” in the long term give the impres- sion that EU defense is primarily a political integration project for some in Berlin. The French are more interested in a stronger intergovernmental EU defense policy today than a symbolic integration project for the future, since Paris per- ceives acting militarily through the EU as an important option for those times when the United States does not want to intervene in crises in and around Eu- rope. Because of their different strategic cultures, therefore, France and Germany may struggle to develop a more active EU defense policy more than their propos- als would suggest.

Italy and Poland: Comparing Frontline States

It is interesting to compare Polish and Italian national defense policies be- cause they are both frontline states for EU–NATO security, and they represent the two main operational priorities in European military cooperation: defending NATO territory in Eastern Europe, and intervening to stabilize conflict-racked countries south of the EU.

Italy has received 75 percent of migrants and refugees coming across the Mediterranean into the EU this year—over 110,000 people, according to the In- ternational Organization for Migration.7 As Elisabeth Braw of the Atlantic Council has noted, this has placed considerable strain on the Italian coast guard and navy, which rescued around 25,000 migrants between January and June of this year.8

Poland worries greatly about the military threat from Russia, following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent war-fighting in eastern Ukraine. A year ago, Russia deployed Iskander-M ballistic missiles (nuclear-capable rockets with a range up to 500 kilometers) to Kaliningrad, its Baltic exclave situ- ated between Poland and Lithuania.9 Part of the joint Russia–Belarusian “Zapad” military exercise in September 2017 took place in Kaliningrad, as well as in Po- land’s neighbor Belarus. Understandably, the Polish and Italian defense policies must prioritize either defensive capabilities or an interventionist stance, partly because, with relatively limited resources, they must prioritize. By comparison, NATO estimates that the U.K. will budget $55 billion, France $44 billion, and Germany $43 billion for defense this year. In contrast, Italy will budget $22.5 billion and Poland $10 billion.10

The 2015 Italian white paper on defense, therefore, is very clear on what It- aly’s strategic and operational priorities should be.11 In particular, the “Euro- Mediterranean” region is highlighted as the primary geo-strategic focus for Italy. This region, in broad terms, covers the EU, the Balkans, the Maghreb, the Middle East, and the Black Sea. However, it is clear that Italy, which had previously sent troops as far afield as NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, will now primarily worry about its immediate neighborhood. This is probably not surprising; given the tur- bulence that has affected some of these regions in recent years, especially North Africa and the Middle East. Turmoil in Libya, for example, has greatly contrib- uted to the large numbers of migrants being smuggled across the Mediterranean to Italy. Interestingly, Italy not only intends to contribute to international coali- tions (whether NATO, the UN, or the EU) in this Euro- Mediterranean space. It is also prepared to lead high intensity, full-spectrum crisis management missions across this region. In other words, even if the geostrategic priorities of Italian defense policy are more narrowly defined than those of other large European powers, its external operational ambitions remain relatively robust. Even though Italian defense spending is equivalent to only 1.1 percent of its GDP, just over half of NATO’s much-trumpeted headline goal, Italy is one of Europe’s biggest contributors to international operations. The Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome says that Italy sent over 6,000 armed forces personnel to international mis- sions and operations during 2016.12 This is almost double Germany’s number, which deployed roughly 3,300 during 2016, according to the German defense ombudsman.13 The bulk of those Italian soldiers operated across Africa and the Middle East,reflecting the priorities set out in the 2015 Italian defense white paper.

Poland’s geo-strategic and operational approach contrasts quite markedly from Italy’s approach. For one, Poland is primarily geographically focused on Eastern Europe, particularly the military threat from Russia. Furthermore, its operational priority is to improve both its national defensive efforts and those of NATO, rather than contributing to robust external missions. Poland, for example, did not participate in NATO’s air bombing campaign in Libya in 2011. The Rus- sian annexation of Crimea in 2014, following the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, strongly reinforced a perception in Poland that Warsaw must invest more in its national defense, including through NATO. The 2017 Polish Defense Concept, a strategic review published in May, pointedly states, “the number one priority was the necessity of adequately preparing Poland to defend its own territory.”14 The first threat and challenge listed in the concept paper is the “aggressive policy of the Russian Federation,” followed by an “unstable neighborhood on NATO’s Eastern Flank.”

As a percentage of GDP, Poland spends almost twice as much as Italy on defense. Moreover, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a law in October 2017 committing Poland to spend an impressive 2.5 percent of GDP on defense by 2030.15 The same law also includes a plan to increase Poland’s armed forces from the current 100,000 personnel to 200,000. Some 50,000 of those will belong to a new voluntary “Territorial Defense Force.” Referring to the new defense law, for- mer Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz rather ambitiously stated: “The Polish army will within ten years gain the capability of stopping every opponent.” Both Poland and Italy say that they have robust military intentions, whether to defend national territory or to contribute to international interventions. Even so, both want help from their allies, whether for countering Russian missiles and in coping with cross-Mediterranean migrants.

Traditionally, Italy has been strongly committed both to NATO solidarity and to European integration. Working through the EU, however, is becoming increasingly important for Rome, for carrying out external operations. For ex- ample, at a summit in Brussels in October 2017 Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni asked other EU governments to help more with stemming migrants, including sending a mission to police Niger’s border with Libya, on top of current EU efforts such as naval operations in the Mediterranean. In addition, Italy is prepared to make proposals on EU military cooperation. Rome, for instance, pro- posed during summer 2016 that Europeans create a multinational military force that would be available to the EU, NATO, and the UN. Italy sees no real or po- tential contradiction between its firm commitment to NATO and its whole- hearted support for deeper EU military cooperation.

The Polish government has long called for stronger NATO defenses, and was greatly reassured by U.S. President Trump’s endorsement of NATO’s mutual defense commitment in Warsaw in July 2017. However, Polish enthusiasm for military cooperation through NATO in recent years has not always translated into strong support for complementary efforts through the EU. After some hesi- tation in Warsaw, Poland only indicated in November 2017 that it would partici- pate in the EU’s PESCO initiative.16 The 2017 Polish defense concept puts this in clear terms: “All EU actions in the security domain should complement and enrich NATO operations in a non-competitive manner.” Moreover, in the paper, that observation is preceded by a statement on the central importance of NATO for Poland, “which is key to our policy of collective defense.”

The new initiatives on EU military cooperation may generate enough politi- cal momentum to keep EU defense high on national agendas. Plus, the remaining 27 EU governments can no longer blame the U.K. for any lack of progress. There have been worries in London and Washington that some EU initiatives might undermine NATO. But if the EU helps its governments better spend their de- fense budgets and deepen their military cooperation, NATO will benefit too, as 21 countries will remain members of both the union and the Alliance. However, that will require EU governments to capitalize on the convergences and manage the divergences of their disparate national defense policies.

In addition, to ensure that EU plans do add value will require much more buy-in from national defense ministries. There is a structural quirk at the core of the current EU decision-making system. National foreign ministries currently lead EU military cooperation efforts, not national defense ministries. This reduces the incentives for defense ministries to embrace EU plans, which include sound but challenging ideas like coordinating national defense planning cycles. A formal EU defense council with equivalent status to the foreign ministers’ council would encourage peer group pressure among defense ministers, and more generally help to educate national defense ministries in the workings of the EU. Furthermore, it is understandable that some European politicians have used U.S. President Trump’s heretofore-wavering rhetorical backing for NATO to garner support for deepening EU military cooperation, which is welcome if it results in Europeans taking more responsibility for their own security. However, taking more responsi- bility is not the same thing as “strategic autonomy,” and few European govern- ments seem serious about reducing their military dependence on the United States.

It would be helpful, therefore, for EU officials to better define “strategic au- tonomy”— a concept contained in the EU’s 2016 Global Strategy—as it is easy to characterize it as a threat to NATO, which it is not.17 In principle, EU military operations are deployed to enforce international law beyond the EU’s borders and in practice when the United States has been unwilling or unable to do so. The EU institutions are trying to create a system to help member states cooperate more closely on military matters: essentially spending sparse defense euros more effi- ciently and operating together externally if needed—but that is all.

First published in ASPJ – Africa & Francophonie 3rd Quarter 2018