The European Union has adopted a fresh strategy plan to spend 2% of its gross domestic product on defence by 2025. This comes as new US president Donald Trump’s election victory reinforced an EU decision to prepare for the withdrawal of the US from its Article 5 security guarantee. In the run-up to the French and Dutch elections in May and June, the importance of Europe as a powerful deterrent against radical powers is the more important theme that resonates in Brussels. The military strategy aims to demonstrate that the EU is “stronger in action”.
The summit statement on defence adopted on Thursday on other issues such as migration and climate, and overshadowed by the Greek debt crisis, shows that the remaining 19 members of the European Union should be more prepared to act together in Europe rather than in the interests of Mr Trump. It is a sensible response to the reality that while the US is stepping back, the EU can’t afford to go alone, and is developing the ability to protect itself.
The plan calls for the creation of a joint military rapid reaction force in the east and the west by 2025, which will be trained, equipped and led by the military missions that the EU exercises today. Their aims will be to counter threats such as terrorism, serious organised crime, weapons proliferation and cybercrime. It also envisages a common ground operation force to assist other countries on matters of their own. The idea of a common EU force will be paid for by individual member states, even if they have made the current contributions. A common armed forces need to keep the EU states united, and stop EU armies from competing with each other. Two years ago, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, set out a vision for a new European army to serve to protect European citizens from external threats. This was the talk of the summit. Mr Macron has praised the EU’s plan, noting that it is ambitious, and is a major strategic step in reaching the 2% target.
Expanding the EU’s military footprint in Europe has been a part of its efforts to improve the capabilities of its member states. Progress is limited by the strong defence budgets of the bigger countries – Poland, Greece, France, Germany, the UK and Italy. The rapid deployment of the EU’s forces in Libya in 2011 helped kick-start the North African civil war and chaos which is going on. Even Germany is now committing to military missions. However, the big sums of money and equipment that the EU plans to devote to defence in its new strategy are conditioned on what is decided by member states.
The US is very active in the world of counterterrorism, and was concerned about German support for a Russian-made air tanker that crashed near Aleppo in Syria in September. It was perhaps better not to have weapons like the aircraft part of the EU force to be guided by German drones. The peacekeeping mission in Mali last year found itself badly prepared, and had insufficient combat aircraft. Military engagement by Europeans will be necessary wherever crises such as Russia’s territorial claims and the conflict in Syria arise. But the EU has to tackle the kind of planning difficulties which hindered it in Syria, even though the EU’s organisation is not a solution. For the first time, European leaders have provided an institutional framework to give the EU a unified vision for its defence and a new readiness to act together. But European defence is still a matter of identity as much as it is about capability. It depends on all the other parts of the European Union becoming more capable as well.