by Hartmut Bühl, Publisher, Paris
ladimir Putin has achieved the impossible: in a few days, his war against Ukraine has made the European Union (EU)politically move further than it has done in more than seven decades of peaceful economic and financial development. In those few days, a true “spirit of defence” has been created. The war has come as a great shock to all those who believed that peace in Europe was eternal.
We Europeans must stop advocating utopias that we hide behind while doing nothing! We must conduct Realpolitik, based on geopolitics, geostrategic ambitions and a militarily feasible defence strategy based on our values and political objectives.
A surprising U-turn in Germany
Germany is currently experiencing a fourth paradigm shift in the post-war history of its defence and armed forces:
The first paradigm shift was the rearmament of 1954, and entry into NATO and the WEU, with limited sovereignty, after the failure of the European project of the European Defence Community (EDC).
The second paradigm shift was reunification: finally, the people saw themselves freed from the substantial burden of spending for their heavy front-line defence and could invest the money “usefully” in the process of reunification.
The third paradigm shift came shortly afterwards in the Balkans in 1994, the first deployment of German soldiers and their involvement in combat operations since the second world war. And on a Sunday, 27th February 2022, in an exceptional plenary session of the Bundestag in Berlin, observing with shame and horror Russian war crimes in Ukraine, Germany experienced its fourth paradigm shift by burying its complexes of the previous seven decades towards everything military. In just a few minutes, a cultural revolution took place, a farewell to the dreams of “eternal peace” and a return to a cruel reality.
Two days after the Russian invasion into Ukraine, the young German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, very skilfully attacked President Putin and his Foreign Affairs Minister Sergueï Lavrov personally, calling them liars, and on Sunday 27th February, the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz – known for his Hamburg equanimity – revealed himself in direct combat, with Russia and Putin’s war by accusing him personally. In a move unprecedented since 1956, and in order to “counter the threat of Putin”, Olaf Scholz announced the complete modernisation of the German Bundeswehr, with a “single special fund”, included in the constitution, of €100bn on top of the annual federal defence budget of €50bn: a quantum leap in European defence.
Europe and its defence
For six decades, the United States was the “security provider” of the Atlantic Alliance and the Europeans the “security consumers”. When President Trump reflected on “the end of NATO” in 2018 and withdrew thousands of his troops from Europe, he created some disarray among Alliance members but after the pointed remarks of the French President in 2019, qualifying the Alliance as “brain dead”, a new sense of solidarity emerged among members. The war in Ukraine has seen a strengthening of the Atlantic Alliance, in a unity of spirit rarely observed in the past, but Europe is no longer the centre of our American friends’ interests and concerns, as they boost their commitment to the Indo-Pacific! The actual solidarity with Europe could quickly change. And what should Europe do so that the world does not go down the drain? EU Member States see their defence as a pillar of NATO’s collective defence. This “coexistence” is reflected in Article TEU 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty, in which the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) was built on the principles of not breaking ties with the Atlantic Alliance Treaty. At the same time, the Union ensured that it could take advantage of the “Berlin Plus” system by falling back on the NATO command structure for high-density military engagement and, in case of need, the support of NATO assets and capabilities.
The 2016 EU Communication on the Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy advanced European defence cooperation. The European Defence Fund (EDF) was created, and cooperation was initiated within the framework of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). The Annual Review to Coordinate Defence Capabilities (CARD) enables EU Member States to better identify and close capability gaps.
Is this what is needed for the future? It is certainly a step forward but it is not yet enough.
A European sovereignty
In 2019, the von der Leyen Commission clearly demanded that Europe take greater responsibility for its own defence and there was even talk of strategic autonomy in security and defence. However, the concept proved to be too ambitious and quickly gave way to “European sovereignty”.
From this perspective, the current trends in European defence may seem paradoxical: alongside new institutional initiatives, the landscape of European defence cooperation is characterised by the emergence of several ad hoc formats, often called “coalitions of the willing”, such as Macron’s European Intervention Initiative (EI2), the French Takuba task force in Mali supported by some European nations, or European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH).
These formats have been criticised as an obstacle to the long-term integration of defence across institutions, but they have proven able to crucially strengthen European defence cooperation, in particular in the context of post-Brexit Europe, where they are seen as a promising path to circumvent the politics of Brexit. And they are a complement with focus on one single aspect of European defence, not a replacement.
The nuclear protection of Europe
Since 31st January 2021, only one EU nation, France, has nuclear capabilities and is a member of the UN Security Council. Would France be able to guarantee the protection of the Union with its voluntarily very limited means of deterrence?
President Macron, like his predecessors, remains faithful to Charles de Gaulle’s doctrine of deterrence. In his conference of 7th February 2019 at the Ecole Militaire in Paris – the same place where the General first expounded his philosophy of French deterrence on 3rd November 1959 – Macron spoke out for a strong and autonomous European defence in which France must assume its responsibilities and play its role.
The President reached out to his European partners, inviting them to participate in an in-depth strategic dialogue and joint exercises on deterrence, but he was also categorical that French nuclear weapons cannot be shared.
The credibility of nuclear weapons is indeed based on an immediate and strategic response capability to a detected attack. Could an extension of French deterrence to the territory of the Union respect this principle of immediacy and trigger, if necessary, an act of reprisal? My view is that it could not; I cannot envisage, as in NATO, any Nuclear Planning Committee in the EU in Brussels, a kind of college that discusses a nuclear response, especially the first engagement, given that decisions are made unanimously.
On the one hand, the nuclear capacity of France as a member of the Union is already a deterrent and as such it protects the Union by its mere existence. This is already a kind of unspoken extension. On the other hand, an official and written extension could actually diminish the credibility of French deterrence.
Consequently: Europe needs a nuclear dimension, the ultimate guarantee of its security. The American umbrella is still valid, French deterrence is complementary.
A “Europe of defence”
The expression “Europe of defence” could encompass multiple configurations of the European Union. Let’s look at only two of them:
A more developed political Union
The first is a more developed Union, where the Member States increasingly share their sovereignty, let’s say a sort of federation. The Union becomes a federal state with a constitution, a presidency, ministers, common legislation, and a common army with a commander-in-chief who commands his forces on the basis of a single set of regulations. A beautiful vision, but it does not strengthen the capacities that we need now nor in the next five or six decades. Does it make sense to combine national armies and create huge cross-cultural problems? How could such a “European army” manifest itself as a security provider in the current political circumstances? Let us therefore remain realistic and rather try to build a European defence between the member countries, taking into account of their respective capacities. It is high time for the European Union to become fully operational – to show that strategic sovereignty is not simply a paper tiger. So, why don’t we just talk about “European forces” or the defence of Europe, the construction of which is already underway at both political and military levels?
A Union with more developed European forces
The second configuration is a Union developing multinational forces. Immediately after the reunification of Germany, Chancellor Helmut Kohl agreed with President François Mitterrand on the need to find solutions for German armed forces to be integrated into multinational units to avoid any suspicion of what Germany might do if it acted alone.
After an initial commitment to integrate a German division into an army corps under NATO command (ARRC), Germany and France took charge of the project to create a Franco-German army corps, following the positive experience of the Franco-German Brigade, created in 1988 as part of the cooperation between Bonn and Paris.
The Franco-German Corps Treaty was signed in La Rochelle on 21st May 1992 after five months of negotiation. It came into being in a spirit of compromise by joining two different cultures with different traditions, different command methods, training, daily working and many other obstacles. The Franco-German corps very quickly developed into a Eurocorps with today six framework nations and five associated members.
The La Rochelle treaty subsequently became the basis for the constitution of all other multinational units in Europe. Multinationalism in force building gained ground all over Europe on land, at sea and in the air. What was missing was an EU Headquarters to coordinate the actions of EU forces, but for nearly two decades London was opposed to such a military-civil instrument, claiming that it would duplicate NATO structures. The British are now gone and European nations are progressing on this matter!
All the created multinational units – all with the link to NATO – have become militarily and socially successful and each unit has its operational excellences. And there is a distinct advantage in these different formats in that missions can select the one that is the most appropriate. This is now a reality!
So, let’s drop the chimera of a “European army”, but remember it as a vision, as a dream for another political world. Let us focus on building a realistic and feasible European defence. Let us come together in investing in multinationalism with respect for different cultures and traditions and thus create a European spirit of defence.
An appeal to European leaders
Putin’s war in Ukraine will force the European Union to review many of its policies, like strategic trade and energy relations with third parties, as well as its agricultural policy, in order to avert industrial and food crises. The EU must also use this opportunity to take the next step in implementing its defence policy, in line with the Lisbon Treaty but still considering European defence as a pillar of NATO- and beyond!
The hard truth is that the Kremlin’s brutal deployment of its forces against a brother country and its population is a wake-up call for the EU to act and for its leaders to take all the necessary measures to protect the peoples and societies of its Member States.
But Europe must also recognise that we Europeans have always been an object of America’s geopolitical interest. And although we have been very grateful for this at times when the United States was focused almost entirely on European security, we must not forget that it was also in the American national interest to do so. And although we were always loyal allies, we were never in fact “real allies” in decision making, because we Europeans – a collection of individual nations – only had a marginal influence on those decisions.
The time has therefore come for us Europeans to change our way of thinking, however hard it may be, reflect profoundly on our future security and close our ranks. In this sense, the Ukrainian catastrophe is an opportunity for Europe not only to reshape its post war relations towards Ukraine and Russia but also to change the Union’s governance on defence and security and establish its own military capabilities.
There is no doubt that we will have to choose between our fundamental values and our short-term interests, between the long term and the comfort of the moment and we must, after seven decades of the European Union, finally overcome our mistrust of armed forces – civil and military – which ensure our defence and security. This is why I call on all Member States to no longer oppose the appointment of a Commissioner for Security and Defence and ask the President of the Commission to start this process without delay. I also call on the President of the European Parliament to upgrade the Subcommittee on Security and Defence to a fully-fledged Committee!