In 2012, the European Union received the Nobel Peace Prize for “advancing the causes of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”. But in less than ten years, instead of continuing to promote the aforementioned values, the EU “is taking two big steps to bolster its defense capacity and engage in military conflicts through training and equipping governments outside the bloc”.
In December 2020, a decision to set up the “European Defense Fund (EDF), aimed at developing and acquiring new weapons and technology for militaries within the EU and abroad”, was made. Its budget for the 2021-2027 period is almost €8 billion. The EU also recently launched the European Peace Facility (EPF), a mechanism that will boost the bloc’s ability to provide training and equipment – including, for the first time, weapons – to non-European military forces around the world. According to an article published by The Guardian on May 19, 2021, the EPF, worth approximately €5 billion for the period of 2021 to 2027, will offer the EU “more freedom of maneuver in Africa than previously, making it possible to provide arms and training directly to national governments and regional actors rather than going through the African Union, as training missions have had to in the past”. Its authors also state that 40 human rights organizations “have warned the possibility of providing foreign military forces with lethal weapons would risk increasing human rights abuses and contribute to further violence and arms proliferation, rather than to protect civilians and search for political solutions”.
The decision to establish the EDF has prompted discussions about the feasibility of creating a joint European army. President of France Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have endorsed the aforementioned idea for a number of years. Guy Verhofstadt, Belgium’s former Prime Minister and Member of European Parliament who chaired the EU’s Brexit coordination group, has been “one of the most vocal proponents of an EU army”.
Clearly, the German and French leadership have promoted the idea of joint European forces with the view of establishing closer ties in the defense sphere within the EU, thus reducing the organization’s dependence on the United States and NATO. It is also worth noting that even during Donald Trump’s presidency, the European Union remained USA’s staunch ally. And yet it has become obvious that it would be impossible to return the state of the transatlantic partnership to what it once was. And the stance taken by the former US leader is not the only reason for the change in circumstances. Shifts within the political landscape after the collapse of the USSR have also had an impact on the transatlantic alliance.
A new global strategy for the EU’s foreign and security policy “Shared Vision, Common Action: a Stronger Europe” was unveiled at the European Union summit on June 28, 2016. According to the document, “European security and defense efforts should enable the EU to act autonomously while also contributing to and undertaking actions in cooperation with NATO”. The EU’s aim in the new strategy to “step up its contribution to Europe’s collective security” indicates a shift from an emphasis on “soft power”, which was at the core of the Union’s security and foreign policy in the past. Soft power refers to “the ability to attract and co-opt, rather than coerce (contrast hard power)”. According to an article published by Politiken (a Danish daily newspaper) on June 28, 2016, by calling for a “more far-reaching defense co-operation” the European Commission’s Global Strategy opened “the door to set up a joint EU army”.
The European Union’s shift towards strategic autonomy is indicative of a growing rift in the transatlantic relationship in recent years. And the United States’ willingness to defend European interests in a multipolar world is now in question. The end of the Cold War caused US and EU’s interests to diverge, with Europe’s security being no longer a number one priority for the United States. The aforementioned changes along with new challenges facing the EU, ranging from the migrant crisis to regional conflicts, pushed its leadership to focus on the objective of strategic autonomy in order to protect EU interests in all parts of the world where priority is given, more and more often, to hard versus soft power.
In such a climate, in May, 27 EU Defense Ministers embarked to develop the EU’s Strategic Compass (a military doctrine of sorts). It is expected that its draft will be presented in November. Some media report that it will be akin to NATO’s “Strategic Concept” “that sets out alliance goals”. The project “aims to strengthen the EU’s crisis management, resilience, partnerships and capabilities”.
In Autumn 2020, Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, briefed EU foreign ministers “on a confidential, intelligence-based threat analysis” before EU defense chiefs started their work. They aim to deliver the final draft in March 2022. During the Foreign Affairs Council (Defense) meeting on May 6, 2021, Josep Borrell and other participants exchanged “views on the strategic compass, with a focus on crisis management”. On May 5, 2021, Reuters reported that fourteen European Union countries including Germany and France had “proposed a rapid military response force that could intervene early in international crises”. The countries supported the idea of creating “a brigade of 5,000 soldiers, possibly with ships and aircraft, to help democratic foreign governments needing urgent help”.
France’s former Minister of the Armed Forces Sylvie Goulard suggested during an interview that her country “would be willing to form a common army with the Germans”. She also said, “Most of the French would not have any reservations about forming a common army with the Germans. It would only have to be debated beforehand what purpose this army should have. What resources do we want to make available to it?”.
The European Parliament data suggests that 75% of people on the continent are “in favor of a common EU defense and security policy”. “A slim majority of 55 percent favor the creation of an EU army, while 68 percent of Europeans say they would like the EU to do more on defense”.
The article stated that plans for an EU army were “appearing to become more present within the bloc”. But according to a German official, any concrete moves would probably not take place “before the upcoming federal elections” in Germany in September.
Some NATO officials have not supported calls for the EU to develop “strategic autonomy”. For instance, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that Europe’s defense depended “on close transatlantic bonds and not on a quest for the continent’s strategic autonomy”.
Valery Kulikov, political expert, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.