Can Europe Become a True Strategic Power?

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Image courtesy of European Parliament/Flickr.

This article was originally published by the IPI Global Observatory on 4 March 2020.

President Emmanuel Macron of France laid out a bold vision for Europe during the Munich Security Conference (MSC) last month. “We need a European strategy that allows us to present ourselves as a strategic power. The Europe I have in mind is a Europe that is sovereign, united, and democratic,” he said. Macron has increasingly invoked this vision as an answer to the prevailing perception in Europe that the United States is beginning to withdraw from the international stage, leaving a void that is slowly being filled by China and Russia.

More worrisome for some in Europe is the growing feeling that the US is retreating from its traditional role as security guarantor for the continent, particularly in light of US President Donald Trump repeatedly criticizing European allies for not paying more for their own defense. This on top of the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), Paris Climate Accord, and Iran nuclear deal. As German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at the MSC: “Our closest ally, the United States of America, under the current administration, rejects the very concept of the international community.”

Yet, contrary to France, Germany has so far failed to provide a clear response to this development. Berlin continues to be paralyzed and undecided how to react to a possible US withdrawal from Europe.

Concretely, Macron wants a much stronger common European defense policy—though he was careful to point out that none of his proposals are in any way projects “against NATO.” He has pushed, for example, for the implementation of the so-called Permanent Structured Cooperation on Defense (PESCO) that was launched in November 2017. In the long term, Macron’s vision is even more far-reaching. “At the beginning of the next decade, Europe needs to establish a common intervention force, a common defense budget and a common doctrine for action,” he said during his famous speech at the Sorbonne in September 2017.

On defense issues, Macron is ready to work with a “coalition of the willing,” in case it does not work with all 27 remaining EU countries after Brexit. One example is the European Intervention Initiative, which he proposed in the same 2017 Sorbonne keynote and which launched in June 2018. It consists of 14 EU member states, plus Norway and the United Kingdom (UK), and is based on a network of military liaison officers.

In addition to this strengthened European conventional defense arm, Macron also envisions a “strategic dialogue” with willing partners on nuclear topics. With the UK’s exit from the EU, France is now the only nuclear power left in the bloc and feels a responsibility for creating a European nuclear deterrent, independent from the US.

On foreign policy, Macron emphasized at the MSC that Europe needed more “freedom of action.” With regard to Russia, he stated: “What we need is a European policy, not just a transatlantic policy.” Macron called for a closer dialogue with Russia to resolve differences, since, according to him, other policies such as sanctions and counter-sanctions had not produced any results.

But what would it take for Europe to translate these suggestions into reality and thus become a true strategic and global player?

First of all, the Franco-German tandem would have to be revived. The truth is that Germany and France don’t see eye to eye on most of Macron’s suggestions. While Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s Minister of Defence, as well as German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas did respond positively to Macron’s call for a stronger European defense arm at the MSC, it remains to be seen whether any of the suggestions will actually be translated into action.

The general consensus among most experts is that Germany will have to overcome its “wait-and-see attitude” resulting from a certain paralysis in Berlin, where the coalition between conservatives and social democrats has gone through challenges.

The second half of 2020 will be decisive in this regard. With Germany assuming the six-months rotating presidency of the Council of the EU on July 1, there is hope that Berlin will respond more concretely to some of Paris’ suggestions. The German EU Presidency will also coincide with the November presidential elections in the US. Should Donald Trump win a second term, Germany could be pressured to work hand-in-hand with France on creating a more strategic Europe.

Second, there is a third camp within the EU outside of Germany and France, consisting mostly of eastern European states, with idiosyncratic views. EU members such as Poland and the Czech Republic have traditionally very close ties with the US, and want to remain closely connected to Washington, no matter what. The same EU states are also, for obvious reasons, highly skeptical of getting involved in a dialogue with Russia without any preconditions. Their concerns will have to be reconciled with those of Germany and France.

Third, in order for Europe to become a true global and strategic player, EU member states will have to be able to take decisions quicker. This could be done by launching a serious debate on whether to abandon the requirement of unanimity voting for decisions on some foreign policy issues, including on condemning human rights abuses, applying effective sanctions, and launching civilian missions. This would greatly help to project Europe’s power on the global stage.

Finally, EU members have to overcome their differences on the EU seven-year budget, the so-called “multiannual financial framework.” The UK’s departure from the bloc will create a budget gap of around 75 billion euros. Yet, a group of states called the frugal four reject the EU Commission proposal to increase their share of the budget, thereby creating a deadlock in the negotiations.

Given the global environment, it seems there is now only one way forward: Europe will have to resolve its petty, internal quarrels, and revive Franco-German cooperation as the motor of European strategic power and integration.

About the Author

Stephanie Liechtenstein is a freelance journalist based in Vienna, Austria. She is also the Web Editor-in-Chief of the Security and Human Rights Monitor.

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit the CSS website.

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