Vienna, Austria. 5 May. Back in 1998 at St Malo in France Britain and France came together to create a leadership framework for the future of a NATO-friendly EU security and defence. They need to do so again and urgently. A senior French official warned the other day that if Britain left the EU France would be surrounded by herbivores, i.e. countries with no strategic tradition or culture, and no willingness to resort to the hard stuff. Equally, something has to give; Europe’s ‘non-defence’ of Europe cannot go on like this. Forget all the drivel you may have heard about European defence budgets being stabilised. This is what academics call counter-intuitive and what I call a complete load of bollocks. Given the adverse change in the global balance of power if Europeans are to play an appropriate role in their own defence a complex mix of three things must now happen: Europeans must spend more on defence, Europeans must do more defence together, and Europeans must find a better balance between the two. There are two distinct schools of thought emerging about how to achieve such a balance; one German and the other (sort of) British and French.
Let me deal with German ambitions first. Last year German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leye gave a speech calling for the creation of a European Army. In July (conveniently after the Brexit vote) Germany will reveal its plans in a new defence White Paper in which it will call for a European Defence Union (EDU) organised around (and by) Germany. Berlin is already in the process of acquiring the Dutch armed forces, which are well on the way to becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Bundeswehr. There is certainly some logic to this as the Netherlands is fast becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of Germany.
However, Germany’s ambitions are not simply about defence. Indeed, they are part of a wider political stratagem to bolster the EU and impose some form of leadership and discipline at a critical moment in the political evolution of the EU. Look around the EU institutions and one will find Germans carefully inserted into almost all the key posts, often just below the political radar. It is not a conspiracy. Rather, the stratagem reflects Berlin’s legitimate concerns about the EU’s loss of political momentum and the need to hold things together.
And, at one level of European defence Germany is right. Too many Europeans have become serial free-riders. As the world becomes more tense and dangerous the refusal of Europeans to face up to the hard defence choices they need to make is not only undermining NATO but warping the defence policy of an over-stretched America. Germany is certainly genuine in its desire for a more effective and efficient European defence effort, albeit within the EU framework.
The problem with Germany’s big defence plan is that Berlin’s ambitions are not reinforced by Germany’s defence reality. Last year the British spent some $58bn on defence, and the French $48bn, but Germany only $36bn. Future defence spending plans show Britain re-emerging as Europe’s leading military power (Russia excluded).
Moreover, for all the firm rhetoric that will be written into the German White Paper about how modern Germany is willing to use force if needs be, Germany remains essentially and instinctively a defence herbivore rather than a carnivore. In other words, German leadership of European defence would ensure Europeans remain a herd of cows, rather than a pack of fast-hunting wolves.
The Dutch are proof of that; once carnivores, now herbivores. Indeed, at one time one of the most robust and Atlanticist of the smaller European powers, the Dutch were willing and able to deploy forces at the sharp-end of military operations. Today the Dutch armed forces have been reduced to what in effect is a small but expert group of peacekeepers, with a few Commandos and Special Forces thrown in to keep the Americans sort of happy.
The cruncher is this; if Germany becomes THE framework nation for driving forward European defence there may well be in time more Europeans under arms than exists today, but they will not be able to do very much. Indeed, the very idea of a European Defence Union is to a large extent counter-bollocks. For such a ‘Union’ to work one would need either a European Government or a German Empire, neither of which is desirable nor practicable. Certainly, an EDU would do little to assuage American concerns about a lack of burden-sharing and thus do little to reinforce NATO.
And here’s the ultimate paradox; much of the rationale for an EDU in the German White Paper will be for enhanced European crisis management that may in time lead to the formation of a European Army. However, in the absence of a ‘Government’ i.e. a unitary decision-maker who can decide quickly how and when to use such a force, it would probably never be used for crisis management, and only used during an existential crisis for which it was not designed.
Implicit in EDU is a recognition that Britain and France have lost control of European defence and its development. Brexit has not helped. But here’s the thing; it is power that drives defence planning not rhetoric, but Britain and France need to get their strategic act together. Indeed, not only is there a need for a St Malo 2.0 to ensure Britain and France re-exert their influence over European defence, should Britain leave the EU the need for a St Malo 2.0 will be even greater. And, should Britain remain in the EU a St Malo 2.0 would also be vital in saving Germany from itself by helping to re-establish the political power balance on which Europe is still founded and which German plans for a German-centric EDU threaten to render unstable.
It is therefore time for a St Malo 2.0. Now that is real counter-bollocks! Anyone for more grass?