European dismay over President Joe Biden’s precipitous withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan has renewed calls for an EU military force. But while proponents of “strategic autonomy” say the fall of Kabul should serve as a wake-up call, others do not see an existential threat and are content to remain as junior partners to US military might.
European countries had no option but to pull out of Afghanistan along with the US – despite their desire for Western troops to stay and stop the country falling into the Taliban’s hands. Washington’s NATO allies depended on US logistics and aerial support for their military engagement in Afghanistan – and then for the safe evacuation of their citizens.
For some, this state of affairs revived the old idea of a European military – with the EU’s chief diplomat himself urging the bloc to create a collective armed force.
“The need for more European defence has never been as much evident as today after the events in Afghanistan,” EU foreign affairs representative Josep Borrell told journalists as the bloc’s foreign and defence ministers gathered for a meeting in Slovenia on Thursday, where discussion of the Afghanistan debacle featured prominently. The EU needs to create a “rapid response force” of 5,000 soldiers, Borrell said.
EU military committee chairman Claudio Graziano agreed, telling reporters that “now is the time to act” by creating “a rapid reaction force” with a genuine “will to act”.
A more surprising declaration came from German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who proposed in a tweet later on Thursday that “coalitions of the willing could act after a joint decision of all” EU members.
AKK, as she is known, had written an opinion piece for Politico in November arguing that “illusions of European strategic autonomy must come to an end”, observing that “Europeans will not be able to replace America’s crucial role as a security provider”.
This provoked a furious response from French President Emmanuel Macron, who said he disagreed “profoundly” with AKK’s comments.
“Strategic autonomy” is the quintessence of Macron’s vision for Europe – military, economic and technological independence from a mercurial US.
This phrase appeared once again on Tuesday, when Macron talked about Afghanistan with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the Élysée Palace. The two leaders gave a joint statement urging the EU to develop “strategic autonomy” so it can take “more responsibility for its security and defence”.
‘Lacking in key capabilities’
But beneath all this rhetoric, the question remains whether the Afghanistan debacle will shift the dial enough to take the EU from ideas to implementation.
Stillborn proposals for an EU “rapid response force” stretch back nearly a quarter of a century. Senior European politicians were saying in the late 1990s that the old continent’s failure to prevent years of bloodletting on its doorstep in the Yugoslav Wars (until the US got involved) highlighted the need for an armed EU force.
A joint 1998 statement by France’s then president Jacques Chirac and British prime minister Tony Blair declared that the EU “must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces”, an assertion that sounds like it could have been made by Emmanuel Macron today.
The EU agreed in 1999 to develop a contingent of 50,000-60,000 soldiers that could be deployed within 60 days. In 2007, the bloc created a network of two “battlegroups” of 1,500 troops from each country. They have since languished.
“There wasn’t the political will to use these battlegroups,” said Shashank Joshi, The Economist’s defence editor. “At the same time, those units were lacking in key capabilities.”
“Europeans need to improve the readiness of their armed forces pretty much across the board,” said Rafael Loss, a defence expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Berlin office. “Particularly for crisis management, Europeans are lacking key enablers like strategic airlift to move large forces and their equipment quickly, and satellite capabilities to ensure persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance prior to and during deployments.”
‘They don’t feel existentially threatened’
Low defence spending among European countries is another major obstacle to the continent’s “strategic autonomy”.
All NATO countries except the US have increased defence spending as a share of GDP since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea had a galvanising effect – nevertheless, the organisation estimates that this year only nine of its 28 European members met the organisation’s spending target of 2 percent of GDP.
This year’s figure for Europe’s biggest economy, Germany, is 1.53 percent – an addition of less than 0.5 percent of GDP since 2015, when its military was so under-funded it used broomsticks in place of guns during a NATO training exercise.
“Germany has increased its defence spending since the Russian annexation of Crimea – but it’s not enough,” noted Claudia Major, a defence specialist at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “Germany is unlikely to reach the NATO objective to spend 2 percent of GDP on defence by 2024.”
Ultimately, it all comes down to threat perception, Major said: “Countries like Germany don’t spend as much because they don’t feel existentially threatened.”
Afghanistan unlikely to ‘move the needle’
The three Baltic states and Poland are among the nine European NATO members to meet the target – with proximity to and a historical awareness of the Russian threat informing their defence and security policies.
Experts say it makes all the difference that the fall of Kabul does not represent that kind of existential threat for European countries.
“I’m not sure if Afghanistan is a wake-up call for many in Europe,” Major said. “It reveals to us in Europe how limited our capacity to act independently is – but that’s a lesson we could have learned for years.”
“Afghanistan will probably not move the needle much in terms of public support for raising defence spending; most Europeans haven’t cared much about Afghanistan for the past decade or so,” as Loss put it.
“European policymakers will have to win over their electorates with other arguments.”
‘Hard to convince’
Proponents of an EU armed force that operates independently of Washington will also have to win over sceptics within the bloc; the Baltic states and Poland are notably wary of any European defence apparatus that would exclude the US.
“It will be hard to convince some member states that collective EU defence would bring the same security as NATO’s US-backed defence arrangement,” noted Richard Whitman, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent.
There is much disagreement within the EU about which states around its periphery constitute a menace. Russia – for example – is an existential threat in the eyes of the Baltic states, a geopolitical nuisance but a key energy partner for Germany, and an ally for Hungary.
“Nobody in the EU has ever been able to come up with a decision-making arrangement that takes national divides into account while facilitating expeditious decision-making; it’s either the lowest common denominator or grand rhetorical comments tied to absurd propositions,” Whitman said. “Military action is politically defensible only when taken by national leaders and parliaments – and it’s difficult to see that being worked around.”
Ad hoc coalitions?
Divides between member states mean that any joint EU action could well rely on mission-specific “coalitions of the willing” outside of the bloc’s organisation structure.
“The jury is out over whether any European military intervention would take place under an EU flag or through an ad hoc coalition, like the one France assembled when it intervened in Mali in 2013,” Joshi said.
As well as circumventing the need for unanimity or even majority support for military action, operating outside EU structures would allow a role for ex-member Britain, the continent’s biggest defence spender and a global leader in intelligence capabilities.
The UK’s involvement would be essential to any plans for European strategic autonomy, Joshi suggested. “NATO-like missions and the collective defence of the European continent would probably be impossible without the UK if the US is absent.”
Despite difficult diplomatic relations between London and Brussels at present, many influential voices in Westminster share the sense that Europe should not rely on the United States militarily. Consequently, Joshi argued, the UK will “want to co-operate with the EU on defence and security over the long run”.