An Atlanticist at the Helm in Brussels

By Jim Townsend

Ursula von der Leyen may be the one who can give Europe’s role in transatlantic defense a higher priority and focus more on real military capability and less on protectionism.

The nomination of German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen and International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde to top jobs in the European Union –Commission President and Chief of the European Central Bank respectively–was a surprise in Washington. It was a welcomed change to the predominately grey male faces that dominate the EU’s headquarters in Brussels.

Such a change is considered by many as breathing life into the drive to renew the EU, despite claims by disappointed European Parliament deputies that the way in which the nominations were put forward “killed democracy”.

Rather than using the European Parliament’sSpitzenkandidat(the “lead candidate” system that puts forward a more representative slate of European candidates representing major European political parties), EU leaders cut deals among themselves and put together their own recommended list for the jobs.

Despite the complaints about democracy’s death, it looks like MEPs will fall in line on July 15thbehind the recommendations pushed by French President Emmanuel Macron and his EU-leader colleagues.

In Washington, such European deal-making hardly rose over the din created by our own deal-maker in chief, who spent the last few weeks preoccupied with North Korea, the G-20 in Osaka and bringing tanks out to the streets of DC to celebrate July 4 Independence Day.

But the Washington transatlanticists certainly took notice when Ursula von der Leyen, (or VDL as she is called) was put forward as the Commissioner. She is a well-known and well-liked figure among beltway Europeanists and her work since 2013 as Defense Minister also put her on the map of DC’s defense and security crowd.

Her relationships with every Secretary (and acting Secretary) of Defense since Chuck Hagel has been excellent.  If she is confirmed as Commissioner, she will be the first outgoing Minister of Defense to hold this job.  And the first German for 50 years.

So, what could this mean for further development of the EU military capability, especially the Permanent Structured Cooperation military capability initiative (PESCO) and the European Defense Fund? And what about “the Army of the Europeans” she has talked about?

That an EU Commission President comes in with a deeper understanding of military issues is a good thing; however, VDL’s stewardship of the Bundeswehr has been uneven and her relationship with the military sometimes tense.  In fairness, she inherited a mess from previous defense ministers, including a broken procurement system.

But more importantly, Berlin steadily cut German military spending after the Cold War ended and by the time she took office, German military forces needed large sums to modernize and improve readiness in every service.  Her tenure was marked by scandals of ships that could not sail and aircraft that could not fly.

However, in the plus column, she powered through historic changes in how the German government employed its military.  She led the way for the German government to play a leading role in arming the Peshmerga in Northern Syria to fight against ISIS.  She also pushed for Germany to take on the lead nation role of the NATO battlegroup deployment to Lithuania.  And she should get some credit (along with President Vladimir Putin) for recent increasesin German defense spending.

So while her scorecard is mixed, other ministers would have had similar problems fixing a Bundeswehr without the money or political support to do so.

But what is a significant achievement is her success in keeping the US-German defense relationship strong, even over the past two stormy years.  And here’s the point: she may be the Commission President that can best steer the EU not only through the shoal waters of the age of Trump, but she may be the one who can give Europe’s role in transatlantic defense a higher priority and focused more on real military capability and less on protectionism.

She may be particularly helpful in untangling the “third party” mess we are in when it comes to how nations outside the EU can participate in PESCO activities.  Given her appreciation for the need to have close transatlantic defense cooperation, and even given the pressure she will be under from European industry, there is a greater chance the US and other “third countries” will get a fair hearing. At least she understands that Fortress Europe, like Fortress America, hurts both sides of the Atlantic.

There won’t be miracles coming from a VDL presidency; a leap in European military capability is not in the offing (nor is “an Army of Europeans”).  But there will at least be a transatlanticist in Brussels who knows defense; the importance of the EU in the transatlantic defense equation, and especially how to keep the Americans from taking their ball and going home (at least that is the hope).  And among the Washington transatlantic defense and security crowd, that’s a hopeful place to be. But a caveat: once in the job, VDL won’t have the luxury of just focusing on defense and the transatlantic relationship.  She knows just how multi-faceted and complex the relationship has become. Focusing on just defense itself would not revive the relationship.

Jim Townsend