hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Snowmeeting 2019: A Tale of Two Europes

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only”.

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

Europe’s Western Europe problem

Alphen, Netherlands. 16 January. The future defence of Europe has a Western Europe problem. This past week has been somewhat of a surreal experience for me. It began with a visit to Vilnius for another excellent Snowmeeting hosted by His Excellency Linas Linevicius, Foreign Minister of Lithuania. The highlight was an audience with Her Excellency Dalia Grybauskaité, President of the Republic of Lithuania. Last night I returned from London after a meeting with the Royal Navy at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on the Future Fleet Operating Concept. Let me start where I began, in Lithuania.

Over the many years I have had the honour of attending the Snowmeeting for me the highlight has always been the audience with the President. President Grybauskaité is a real leader and I can only hope as she contemplates the end of her term as Head of State this former European Commissioner might also consider becoming the first woman President of the European Commission or European Council, or, indeed, the first woman Secretary-General of NATO. Frankly, there is no-one better suited to these high positions at this moment in Europe’s history. The reason is quite simple. She knows what it is like to lead a country on the front-line of freedom under constant threat and her leadership contrasts so markedly with so many of Western Europe’s feckless ‘leaders’.  

A cold dose of strategic reality

The Snowmeeting is an annual snapshot, a dose of strategic reality. It contrasts with so many of the meetings I attend in Western Europe in which harsh reality is rarely allowed to intrude on pleasant and pleasing theory. What I took away from this year’s Snowmeeting was the extent to which the real problem with transatlantic relations and European defence is really a problem with Western Europe.  Throughout the meeting at the wonderful IDW Esperanza resort in Trakai a constant theme became apparent to me: the warming security mantle Central and Eastern Europe has wrapped itself since the end of the Cold War is becoming threadbare in the face of cold blasts from the east because much of Western Europe is fiddling whilst the world churns. 

As usual, much was made of the state of the transatlantic relationship and the travails of President Trump. Senior Lithuanians felt Trump had a point about the fecklessness of ‘Europeans’ when it comes to Europe’s defence, i.e., Western Europeans. The debates on European ‘strategic autonomy’, and what Germany’s defence minister, the other female candidate for Europe’s top jobs Ursula von der Leyen suggested this month is a ‘European army’ that was ‘taking shape’, seemed surreal at times. Yes, President Macron and von der Leyen are not suggesting that some integrated single European force a la EDC is about to emerge. Rather, they see the EU’s PESCO bringing national forces closer together to create a joint rather than a common force. They do envisage more ‘common’ EU structures and, as I observed at the meeting, past experience suggests that will lead only to more European lawyers than European warriors.  

It is the mismatch between ambition, cost and investment which makes this latest European army ‘thing’ like all the other European army ‘things’ that have come before it.  Unless any such emergent military structure is specifically and unconditionally assigned to NATO, and thus underpinned by the Americans, then the true cost of the ‘strategic autonomy’ to which Macron and von der Leyen aspire would be at least 4% of GDP especially for the French and Germans who aspire to lead it. Are Berlin and Paris willing to bear such a cost? 

Read between the lines and far from representing a Germany suddenly at ease with hard power and hard leadership ‘strategic autonomy’ and a ‘European army’ are yet more political devices to actively avoid such unpleasantness. Sure, Berlin wants to lead but it does not want to pay either the actual or political price such leadership would demand. And yes, Paris always wants to lead so long as someone else pays for it. Germany? The result is that both the French and the Germans are again dancing on the head of a blunt euro-pin between strategic reality and strategic pretence, and neither can move forward without the Americans and the British.

The other place 

Talking of strategic pretence let me now turn to my London visit. As I sat in the meeting on Whitehall I could see the Union flag flying proudly at the gaff above the Houses of Parliament. As it fluttered in the wind the self-interested massed mediocrities who imitate Britain’s political class were Brexit fluttering below. Let me be clear; yesterday witnessed the death of Brexit. The crushing defeat of the draft Withdrawal Agreement, and with it the strategy of Britain’s failed prime minister Theresa May, means that if any such agreement is to finally pass the Remainer House of Commons it will leave Britain so close to the EU that there will be no point in leaving at all. It is precisely THAT objective that the British Establishment has sought to bring about in what historians will come to see as a brilliant exercise in willful strategic incompetence. 

What are the implications? The paradox of yesterday for me was that the meeting I attended with the Royal Navy revealed another Britain. A Britain that can still think strategically and which is taking the necessary steps down a long road to a future force that is built around the military ‘effects’ the British need to generate. i.e., the preservation of peace and the maintenance of effective deterrence. The problem is that the strategy that underpins any such effort, and which the people of Lithuania need to work, is predicated on two now doubtful requirements. First, strategically-competent British political leadership. Second, a Britain in a position to lead coalitions in the event of an emergency. The latter requirement for possible coalition leadership is particularly important given the increasing pressures on US forces worldwide.

As I walked past Parliament the massed ranks of divided dissent lined the other side of Abingdon Street. One could feel the tension in the air between the ‘we will never accept the referendum result’ Remainers and the ‘you are about to betray me’ Brexiteers. Perception is everything in politics. Given the events of last night, it is hard for me to see any way out of this mess that will not leave millions of Britons hating the EU and wanting to have little to do with the defence of other Europeans. They believe Britain is being humiliated by its political class and by Brussels and would much prefer to hide behind the British nuclear deterrent than risk the lives of their young people or their taxpayer’s money defending the very Europeans they believe are screwing them – rightly or wrongly.

Snowmeeting 2019: unity of purpose and action 

Back to the Snowmeeting. Another of my takeaways was an overwhelming sense that others cannot be trusted to defend Lithuania and that Lithuanians must thus take matters into their own hands.  There was a feeling that the Americans cannot be trusted because President Trump is making America ‘great’ again in a very President Trump way, even if the US commitment to the defence of Lithuania is actually increasing. Britain cannot be trusted because much of its people now hate ‘Europe’ and much of its political class are idiots. France and Germany cannot be trusted because their defence words never seem to match their defence deeds. That worried me. The real deterrent that protects Lithuania is the unity of purpose and action implicit in the very existence of both the EU and NATO. 

What happened last night in London matters to Lithuania. It was about far more than the nature of Britain’s eventual self-subjugation to the EU and Brussels. It was about whether Britain any longer has the will to be a major defence power. It was about whether Europe has any chance of generating sufficient strategic seriousness and a strategic culture to match so that it could mount an effective first response during a major crisis. It was about the nature of the coming resistance movement that could emerge in Britain in the wake of the Brexit disaster if political leaders are not sensible and the boost to populism Europe-wide such resistance would afford. It was about the very nature of the future transatlantic relationship which Britain helped create.  Above all, it was about whether any serious leader in any major Western European country will ever emerge to get serious about Europe and its real defence, not a rhetorical defence. 

As for the future defence of Lithuania and Europe’s liberty let me paraphrase the quote of NATO’s first Secretary-General Lord Ismay that he never actually made. We must find a way to keep America in, Britain up, France and Germany real and the rest of Europe free. No more strategic pretence. 

Madam President, we need you! All of us! Thank you!

Julian Lindley-French             

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