Recent geopolitical crises, notably the disorderly withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, have cemented the idea that the EU cannot fully rely on the United States or NATO for its protection.
Coincidentally, the initial plan for such a plan was presented to EU member states this week. The “Strategic Compass for Security and Defense” is a vague outline of how cooperation across the bloc might work. The document was disclosed in full to CNN.
The main proposal is for the EU to gain the capacity to rapidly deploy up to 5,000 troops to deal with many potential crises. Rather than a standing force reporting to a commander in Brussels, these rapid deployment groups will be a set of troops from all participating Member States, trained to tackle a specific task and commissioned at EU level for that purpose. mission. These tasks can range from an evacuation mission, as in Afghanistan, to border peacekeeping or humanitarian missions.
The document also talks about the need for a joint approach in defense procurement, research and intelligence, making the bloc more competitive and efficient. It recognizes that for this to happen, national and European spending should increase and focus on filling the gaps that currently exist across the EU.
Not all 27 EU countries would be required to participate; however, deploying troops on behalf of the EU would require the approval and involvement of member states, and details of how this would work have yet to be confirmed.
While Eurosceptics’ derision at the idea of an “EU army” means that this latest proposal falls short of the 1999 target of a maximum of 60,000 troops ready to deploy at any time, it remains ambitious and, exceptionally for a multilateral EU top-down proposal, is widely supported by the 27 member states.
However, this is only the beginning and reaching an agreement on all the expensive things from 27 countries facing very different security and tax issues will be far from straightforward.
To get a feel for the situation at this early stage, CNN spoke to more than 20 EU officials, diplomats and politicians from across the bloc in a bid to answer a question many have been asking for years: the EU will she one day have an army to call her own?
The big picture is that everyone agrees on the central point: something has to be done for Europe to be protected.
Pietro Benassi, Italian Ambassador to the EU, told CNN that while the compass is to be endorsed by 27 nations – some of which are “constitutionally neutral, [and] others who have different constitutional and military positions “- he is convinced that the EU can” build a common strategic culture “and that the plan will give impetus to this end.
This opinion, or a version of it, was shared by nearly everyone CNN spoke to. However, there are long-standing divisions that will inevitably slow down this momentum.
The most passionate country is undoubtedly France. President Emmanuel Macron has made no secret of his dream of a stronger and more integrated Europe in foreign affairs. He even called for a “real European army” to reduce Europe’s need for US-led NATO protection.
The current target is for the strategic compass to be approved in March, while France holds the rotating EU presidency. But Macron might want to put the champagne on ice, as many of his European counterparts are less enthusiastic about defense.
Most notably, some in the eastern EU – countries like Poland, Estonia and Lithuania – are in favor of the plan, but only if a formal agreement specifically refers to the threat posed by Russia and, to a lesser extent, China.
At present, the document deals with the deterioration of the EU’s relations with its neighbor, but also says that “common interests and a shared culture actually bind the EU and Russia”, and that it would continue to engage with “Russia on specific issues on which we have common priorities.” Eastern states have also expressed concern over any plan that undermines NATO.
Scandinavians are also worried about Russia. Diplomats and officials from these countries explained that “we run a real risk from Russia in this part of the world” and made it clear that “the transatlantic alliance must be strengthened as part of any broader plan. of the EU “.
Many officials, diplomats and politicians have said they believe Macron is the main sticking point, reluctant to point the finger at Russia.
Then, the so-called “frugal”. It’s not exactly the same “Frugal Four” – Denmark, which has an opt-out option on the Strategic Compass, the Netherlands, Austria and Sweden – that made life difficult for the EU when she signed her Covid package last year.
However, officials in some of those countries have expressed concern that the troops assigned to the rapid deployment teams would never be used, that this action would be vetoed and that the whole thing would end up wasted. money that would undermine NATO and undermine the transatlantic alliance.
The last piece of the puzzle is Germany. The richest country in the EU is still negotiating its next coalition government and officials say it is very difficult to predict exactly how hawkish Berlin will be in the coming year.
A German diplomat told CNN: “We still don’t know who will lead the defense. It seems likely that it will be the Socialists, who will be willing to give small contributions on things like field hospitals and not to engaging abroad like France, I think, might want us to do. That could be a real disagreement. ”
Despite all the potential pitfalls, there is genuine optimism that these differences can be bridged if everyone becomes realistic and serious.
Rasa Juknevičienė, Member of the European Parliament and former Lithuanian Defense Minister, said that “only the EU is capable of solving” the hybrid threats it faces from hostile actors in Russia and China. However, she is concerned that if the bloc fails to agree on issues ranging from cybersecurity, military capabilities, to a “more realistic view of Russia” and, most importantly, spending, so “it’ll be like Greta Thunberg says, just blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah
Former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb believes that Brussels’ renewed enthusiasm for security is “timely, important and realistic.” The United States will not support European security forever ”.
He says that if Europe is serious about protecting itself “it must understand that the line between war and peace is blurred … soft power has been turned into a weapon and has become hard power. We see this with the claimants of asylum used as weapons. We see with information, trade, energy and vaccines being used as weapons. “
The EU has been widely applauded for the sincere scope of its ambition, and analysts hope they can reach meaningful agreement on one of the most sensitive issues in European diplomacy.
Velina Tchakarova, director of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, recognizes that consensus building will be a long process, but that there can be a positive movement.
“Once it is approved … there will be concrete directions in which the EU and Member States should go when it comes to forging partnerships and alliances, building capacity, building a resilience in key areas and sectors, and finally to achieve a rapid and effective crisis management based on a shared strategic assessment of common threats.
It would be an extraordinary achievement. While this is not the EU military that many longed for or feared – depending on your perspective – it is refreshing to see Member States so broadly on the same page over a period of time. question that clearly needs to be addressed.
However, this is really the start of the process and there is a lot of politics to be done – including next year’s French elections which could throw Macron, the chief cheerleader, from office.
And politics is so often what ruins Brussels’ best-worked plans. Steven Blockmans, research director at the Center for European Policy Studies, says that “for rubber to hit the road, member states will have to put aside their domestic concerns of blood and treasure and allow common security interests to prevail. could therefore delay or veto the deployment for so-called “vital” national security issues.
Despite all the positive sounds now, it is entirely possible that once the 27 leaders are locked in a room to discuss this proposal, the naked national interest and previous grievances will take over and this plan will be watered down. or put aside.
And while senior officials in Brussels remain optimistic that this plan is a compromise enough to avoid such petulance, when there is so much money on the table and political capital at stake, diplomacy, compromise and the unit can easily go through the window.
Which, for the EU, would hardly be the first time.