Recent plans put forth by Joseph Borrell, the European Union (EU) foreign minister, calling for the development of a 5000-strong, rapid-deployment European defense force, is another indicator of the Union’s aspirations to develop military capabilities and to be a powerful autonomous actor in the security domain. A similar aspiration led to a decision in 2007 to develop a force of 1500 soldiers, but to the best of my knowledge, the idea failed to advance very far. The EU is an economic giant but it is a security dwarf. In international politics, a “united” group of countries cannot become an effective global power by simply being a major economic power – they need to develop a security arm to accompany it. The problem seems to be that the EU, while producing occasional statements of intent, has not so far succeeded in developing union-level security capabilities. This is despite pressure from the United States, which says that Europe should be devoting more resources to its own defense.
We can begin our discussion of EU’s security dilemma by recognizing that the European Union and the European defense deal are two distinct constituencies. Whereas European defense is often used to refer to NATO’s European members, EU defense is confined to EU membership. European defense includes two major military actors, the United Kingdom and Turkey, which are members of NATO but not the EU. It also includes Cyprus, which is not a member of NATO because of its divided status and its ongoing conflict with Turkey. The European members of NATO have so far failed to establish a distinct security community capable of joint action independent of the US, though frequent references are made to the European leg of NATO. Germany and the UK are trying to accommodate the US to ensure that it does not fully suspend its commitment to Europe’s defense. The Baltic states and Poland also feel that they would not be able to resist a Russian onslaught without American support. France, on the other hand, has traditionally argued for an autonomous European defense arrangement in which it would play the leading role. However, its anti-American stance appears to have become a bit more moderate under Mr. Macron.
If we turn to the EU as such and analyze its aspirations to develop military capabilities, we find many impediments. Looking at NATO, we can already identify one source of disagreement among the EU members. There are others. First, as an organization where major decisions are taken by unanimous consent, the typical EU decision is often the lowest common denominator. With regards to questions of security, this means that decision making is complicated by different security concerns and foreign policy goals of different members. It is not clear, for example, that the French and the Germans see eye to eye on the nature of EU security questions in the Eastern Mediterranean and how they should be addressed. France tends to treat Turkey in highly adversarial terms while Germany appears to prefer a solution that does not alienate Turkey. More broadly, there does not seem to be a common threat against which all members feel that they should be united. Second, France feels that it can lead the EU as its main security provider. That proposition is unrealistic from a variety of perspectives. France, unlike the US, does not have sufficient nuclear capability and the means of delivery necessary to make the EU a world power. Furthermore, other EU members would not support France in enhancing its nuclear capabilities. Germany, by far the strongest Union member, on the other hand, is unlikely to venture into becoming involved in developing nuclear weapons. Third, France has not been noted for major military achievements since the return of Napoleon from Moscow. Bismarck defeated France in 1871; the country was bailed out twice by the Americans and the British after both World Wars, and they lost colonial wars. Finally, why should other Europeans rely on their French friends to provide for their security, especially when they can see that France has its own aspirations for global leadership independent of the EU?
NATO worked as an alliance because its members all agreed on a common threat the Soviet Union – and the US was the only country that had the means to counter it. In return for assuming major responsibility for the defense of Europe, the Americans defined the defense strategy of the alliance and expected other members to comply with its decisions (even if the latter were not always so enthusiastic.) Once the Cold War came to an end, the commanding position of the US began gradually to erode. The result has been a weakened NATO that is trying to maintain its relevance by adjusting to changing conditions. In light of these circumstances, times may be singularly inappropriate for the EU to develop itself into a major global security actor.