08.10.2021 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

NATO Crisis and the Making of European Defense Force


If Afghanistan was not big enough a debacle for the US-EU ties, the anti-France US submarine deal with Australia, as well as the AUKUS defence partnership, shows how the US is increasingly configurating its global policies regardless of the mainland Europe i.e., excluding the UK. While Boris Johnson recently met Biden and reaffirmed the UK’s ties with the US — which has become extremely important in the wake of Brexit — the US officials were busy diffusing the crisis that the US-Australia submarine deal triggered between France and the US, and by extension the EU as well. Unlike the UK, the EU’s stance favours the French perspective, showing the formation of two visible blocs within the ‘West’. While many in the non-Western world see these developments as a logical march towards multipolarity, a genuine multipolar system may remain a utopia, at least for the EU, unless it can really assert itself militarily and project itself independently of the US in real terms. The EU officials are quite mindful of the need to operate not only as a bloc in itself – and reset ties with the US – but also as a military power.

After the debacle the EU faced in Afghanistan because of the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw without coordinating with NATO/EU countries, the EU’s High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs and Defense, Josep Borrell, said that the EU’s deficiency in acting “autonomously comes with a price”, a problem that can be overcome through a continental “force” of five thousand soldiers that can allow the EU to act quickly to tackle any military emergencies.

While Borrell’s ideas seem to resonate a debate in the EU that goes back to the 1990s, the fact that the old idea could not materialise does not mean that it will fail again. Significantly enough, some qualitative changes have taken place at both regional and international level. The UK’s exit from the EU has effectively changed European political dynamics in ways that the room for both the EU and the UK to adopt mutually divergent policies has expanded manifold. The AUKUS, as well as the European backlash, is a prime manifestation of this growing regional divergence reverberating internationally in Europe and across the Indo-Pacific.

The call for European autonomy is likely to gain traction in the future not only because of the changing geo-political dynamics of and in Europe and how it is leaving a direct impact on transatlantic ties, but also because Europe’s most powerful countries – France and Germany – are supporting this proposal.

German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer recently tweeted that “In the EU, coalitions of the willing could act after a joint decision of all,” adding that “The military capabilities in EU member countries do exist” and that “The key question for the future of the European security and defence police is how we finally use our military capabilities together.” She made the same argument in a piece she wrote for The Atlantic Council after the US withdrew from Afghanistan. The German argument is no different from the statement issued by the French foreign and defense ministers, saying that the debacle “only heightens the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy.”

In her annual state of the European Union address delivered on September 15, Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said that an EU force could be “part of the solution” for many problems the continent is facing. But such a force requires, first and foremost, political will. Do the Europeans have that will?

While we are yet to see a level of political will that could propel the EU towards actually developing its own force, there is little gainsaying that the prerequisite for the EU to become a global player and be taken seriously at the international level is its own military power.

For many Europeans, the security discourse in Europe is changing. So, what was once thought to be unthinkable, and a taboo, is not only gaining support from powerful countries as well as the EU officials themselves, but the external factors – the deteriorating US-EU ties – also favour such a step. If past few years are any indicator, the US-EU ties are unlikely to recover. The US is increasingly focused on China in Southeast Asia. Its focus on Southeast Asia has also led it to withdraw form the Middle East. The same is likely to happen in Europe. A US focus on China/Southeast Asia means that the US, regardless of who sits in the Oval office, is unlikely to remain as committed to the EU as it has been since the Second World War.

Things, therefore, have changed, and will continue to change. Therefore, while a crucial reason for why such proposals for an EU army could not get traction in the past because of the UK’s opposition, this factor, too, is no longer relevant due to Brexit. In fact, the Brexit and the following growing wedge between the UK and the mainland Europe are crucial reasons for why the EU needs to have its own army. An EU army is also a prerequisite for the bloc to communicate and develop ties with Russia independently of the US. While this is not to suggest that the EU-Russia ties will become absolutely normal, there is no denying that the EU will have more room to pursue its options. The success of the Nord Stream-2 is just an indication of the immense benefits that working ties between Russia and the EU can bring to the continent on the whole.

For many in Europe, it is already evident that change in EU-US ties is not the doing of Donald Trump; rather it is a structural shift operating independently of the individuals, a fact that explains a stark continuity between the policies of Trump and Biden. All of this makes an EU army inevitable, with the political will to develop it maturing gradually but surely.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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