Don’t Believe the Hype About European Defense


If you’re a Europe-based think tanker, policy wonk, or commentator, Donald Trump and Brexit are great for business. Just about every Brussels pundit is leading off his musings about Europe’s future with some sort of Trump or Brexit hook. If you haven’t heard by now that either Trump, Brexit, or — ideally — both offer historical windows of opportunity for European defense cooperation, you’re way outside of the Brussels bubble.

Those invested in the notion that the European Union can become strategically autonomous interpret pretty much whatever happens out there as a catalyst for greater European defense cooperation. Every time there is some sort of global crisis or “external shock,” catalyst-related narratives pop up — there are just too many politicians, officials, and pundits in Europe who lust after such narratives.

We have been here before. Many times. Think about the Balkan Wars triggering all that talk about the hour of Europe; of the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 being widely viewed as wake up calls for Europe; or how Obama’s 2010 announcement of a pivot to Asia or reluctance to lead on Libya supposedly left Europeans no choice but to take security matters into their own hands. And let us not forget the 2003 Iraq War, when millions of Europeans took to the streets to protest against George W. Bush and Tony Blair’s mischiefs. That irresponsible, trigger-happy, and condescending American cowboy — not to speak of his British “poodle” — was supposed to be the mother of all catalysts for greater European defense cooperation.

And yet, no serious push for European strategic autonomy ever came about. E.U. defense die-hards have been left at the altar again and again. What they typically acknowledge, by way of consolation, is that these things take time and patience — Rome was not built in a day. They also argue important steps are being taken, and these things (i.e. the articulation of a serious E.U. defense policy) tend to move forward one step at a time. Yet, it is not easy to keep count on how many allegedly “important steps” have been taken along the long and winding road to European strategic autonomy. But perhaps the next catalyst will be the real thing that many seem to be waiting for. Enter Trump and Brexit.

Some say Trump is just too unstable and untrustworthy to look after European interests or be entrusted with the defense of the international liberal order. Others argue his emphasis on greater allied burden-sharing means Europeans need to step up their defense efforts. No matter which of these arguments you prefer, the conclusion is similar: Europeans have no option but to get their act together.

Yet, the notion that an irresponsible or disengaged America forces Europeans to take care of their own security could re-open old divisions on fundamental questions. One such question is nuclear deterrence. This is a question many could pretend to ignore during the two decades that followed the end of the Cold War, as the so-called peace dividend gave way to repeated European attempts to integrate Russia into the West. However, Russia’s annexation of Crimea has put deterrence and defense back in Europe’s security agenda. And Moscow resorting to nuclear saber-rattling as a means of intimidation, and its ongoing efforts to modernize its nuclear arsenal, underscore the renewed importance of nuclear weapons for European security. Any serious discussion on European strategic autonomy must square the nuclear circle.

This leads to a critical and highly uncomfortable question: Given widespread reluctance around the idea of a German nuclear deterrent, are Paris and Berlin ready to reach some sort of sharing agreement over the French nuclear deterrent? Most unlikely. The idea of national strategic autonomy is embedded in France’s political DNA, and an independent nuclear deterrent is the jewel of France’s autonomy crown. Germany, for its part, might have come to terms with its de facto strategic subordination to the United States through NATO. But it is unlikely to sign off on a serious European defense scheme if its role is to be relegated to playing second fiddle to France, let alone Britain. This red line was already set by former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt during the Cold War. For Brandt, any European defense scheme independent from NATO would require a serious discussion about the modalities for including West Germany in the process of decision-making concerning the French nuclear deterrent: Germany’s role could not be “restricted to infantry tasks.” This continues to reflect German thinking.

As long as a shared nuclear deterrent is off limits, Berlin is unlikely to reject any sort of French (or British) nuclear umbrella, both for strategic and political reasons. Therefore, and for all the rhetoric about Trump having done more for European defense cooperation than anyone else, once the electoral fog clears in Germany, we should expect key European leaders to re-emphasize the centrality of the United States to Europe’s security and geopolitical architecture, and put their energies on co-opting the United States (mainly through NATO) and re-stating its commitment to European security.

Now let’s turn to Brexit and the myth that “British recalcitrance” has been responsible for the misfortunes of “European defense” over the last few decades. With the British out of the E.U. — or so the argument goes — the path is finally clear for European strategic autonomy. Never mind the sorry state of European military capabilities, or that Britain has actually been one of the leading advocates of greater military spending in Europe, and of investing in modern capabilities, having partnered with France to that effect. Never mind that, when it comes to defense, the French are just as likely to hold Germany’s hand and release Britain’s as Trump is to get a standing ovation in the European Parliament. And never mind the gulf between France and Germany, the supposed engine of an alleged European security enterprise.

France looks at military force not just through the lens of defense and deterrence, but also as a means of advancing its foreign policy and economic interests. And it makes a proactive use of it. Germany rejects that vision. It sees the military as a last resort defensive instrument. These are deeply ingrained differences of strategic culture. And any serious effort on the part of Germany to overcome its cautious and defensive attitude towards military power is likely to cause discomfort amongst some of its European partners, France included. In many ways, when it comes to defense spending and its attitude towards the use of force, Germany is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.

At any rate, the differences in French and German attitudes toward military force are not just philosophical. They project into virtually any debate on European security cooperation, whether it relates to capability development, new institutional structures, or launching E.U. military missions.

The never-ending debate over the establishment of an operational headquarters for the planning and conduct of E.U. military operations give us an example that is both critical to any debate about European strategic autonomy and highly illustrative of the extent to which Franco-German differences can cripple the idea of a serious E.U. defense policy. The French have traditionally pushed for a fully staffed European Union military headquarters geared for planning and conducting expeditionary missions. The Germans have advocated for a more modest civilian-military planning facility focusing on low-intensity, peacekeeping, and stabilization missions. Despite numerous institutional reshuffles in the European Union’s planning and conduct structures, French and German red lines have barely moved since the CSDP was launched in 1999.

As a result, it has taken nearly 20 years of allegedly significant steps for the European Union to establish a “Military Planning and Conduct Capability” composed of up to 25 staffers, devoted to assisting with the planning and conduct of so-called non-executive (i.e. training and assistance) missions. By way of comparison, it took NATO barely a few years to set up a permanent, integrated military command structure with a strategic level command and several joint force and specific component commands capable of planning and conducting all types of operations.

All in all, ongoing differences amongst the European Union’s key member states suggest that neither Brexit nor Trump are likely to prove to be real game changers for E.U. defense cooperation, let alone lead to European strategic autonomy.


Luis Simón is Research Professor at the Institute for European Studies (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) and Director of the Brussels office of the Royal Elcano Institute. He has a PhD in International Relations from the University of London (Royal Holloway College).

Image: U.S. Army Europe