TAG Virtual Conference – European Political Co-operation: EU-lite?

By Julian Lindley-French

“Technocracy is taking the place of politics distancing leaders from people”.

The debate focused on where and whom the future centre of gravity of Europe’s future defence would reside and the role of European political integration therein 73 years after the Schuman Declaration.  European defence integration is inextricably intertwined with European political integration. However, what was intended as high political aspiration has now descended into a “technocratic construction”. The Russo-Ukraine War has also revealed the extent of the military weakness from which many Europeans suffer. There is a fundamental tension between the EU and European defence: the need to constrain big power within Europe whilst at the same time projecting stabilising and deterring power beyond.  This tension is most apparent in an implicit struggle between an increasingly technocratic and undemocratic European Commission to focus ever more power on itself in the name of ‘Europe’ and the European Council which formally remains the EU’s overarching political authority. That tension came to a head in China when President Macron reminded President Ursula Von Der Leyen that it is the Council not the Commission that sets the direction of European foreign and security policy.

Policy and power must be urgently realigned in a Europe that is now home to only 11% of the world’s population.  Crucially, 70% of the EU’s ‘GDP’ is in Western Europe. Unfortunately, the Franco-German locomotive has been derailed by French paralysis and German uncertainty allied to the lack of any coherent and distinctive European identity in security and defence policy.   As the visit of Macron and Von Der Leyen demonstrated, the EU is losing influence on the world stage lacking both defence and growth. The EU is also divided between a vision of a New Hanseatic League and ever closer political union.

The multilateral rules-based system needs an EU that is both power and constraint.  Unfortunately, both the US and EU are evincing respective forms of isolationism.  A strong EU is also vital for an increasingly stretched United States. A stronger EU would inevitably change the relationship with the US. The defence-strategic choice Europeans thus face is profound: the US remains the indispensable ‘European’ power and drags Europe into its conflicts or European develop defence self-sufficiency – no European Army but something like a European Permanent Joint Headquarters with the powerful European states clearly in the van. Divergence could be as much military-technical as political given the pace of the growing gap between the US and its European allies.   There are also likely to be economic tensions between the US and the EU and disagreements over how to deal with China.   

To realise strategic coherence, and thus increasing European strategic responsibility and autonomy, European defence would need four fundamentals: an advanced and relevant European defence and technological industrial base; advanced and shared intelligence not unlike Five Eyes, defence budgets that would probably cost around 5% GDP for each member-state respectively; and a discreet European Strategic Forum, which would also need to include the UK with whom France co-operates far more than with Germany, which would explore ideas.

What is to be done? First, Europeans need to digest the lessons of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Second, Europeans need to learn again to operate militarily at both the strategic and operational levels. Third, to overcome the lack of leadership an “avant-garde” group of powers must be established comprising Britain, France, Germany and Italy that would be open to others but which drives policy.  Such a group might help overcome the suspicion with which the Franco-German locomotive is now treated. Fourth, by all means be open to US industry but maintaining high-end interoperability with America forces must not simply be a metaphor for ‘buy American’. Rather, it should reflect a shared aspiration to establish a new Euro-Atlantic “digital backbone”. Fifth, each European state must learn the relevant lessons from the Russo-Ukraine War and act upon them. Sixth, the EU-NATO partnership needs to be further strengthened and the relationship of both with Partners strengthened and better aligned. Relying on NATO for Europe’s military defence is “not outsourcing” defence to the US. Seventh, EDTIB, PESCO and the European Defence Fund are all important initiatives but they are simply not at the rights scale. Finally, Europeans must focus on developing capabilities.  

Time is pressing.  A new international system is being created that is not in the West’s favour. Moreover, Europe’s true test is yet to come – the rebuilding of post-war Ukraine. European Political Co-operation?  For Europeans to play their responsible role in their own defence and the wider world Europe needs European defence not EU defence. Above all, whatever the institutional framework Europeans must invest more in defence.  The outlook is not promising. There was talk that a new Defence Investment Pledge would be agreed at the NATO Vilnius Summit in July which would set 2.5% GDP on defence as a goal, possibly 3%.  That aspiration has now been watered down to the existing 2% as a floor for defence investment.  The NATO Annual Report also noted that only 8 of the 31 members have achieved 2% GDP on defence of which 20% annually must be on new capabilities.

EU defence or European Political Co-operation?  Unless there is sufficient political will the question is moot.

Julian Lindley-French