For the European defence efforts, getting rid of the UK’s torturous approach toward a common defence policy presented an opportunity the governments and European institutions eagerly seized this year. But there is little time to rejoice.
Faced with a US president spearheading unilateralism, and with the rules-based world order increasingly challenged, Europeans had to quickly come of age in terms of security and defence.
Here are five key issues to watch in 2019.
Cold War stability is over – new arms race ahead?
The approach of both, the US and Russia, is iconoclastic. Europeans had relied on treaties dating from the final days of the Cold War arms race, possibly thinking they are iron-cast. Not at all.
It came rather as a shock that the United States declared it would pull out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty unless Moscow withdraws its new cruise missile system 9M729, which is said to violate the ban of all land-based and ballistic missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometres.
According to NATO officials, Russia’s nuclear-capable missiles are mobile, difficult to detect and can target cities in Europe with little warning.
Russia seems to be unimpressed and ready to negotiate a new treaty, which could include China’s nuclear missile arsenal.
Speaking to journalists after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, US state secretary Mike Pompeo gave Russia 60 days to come clean.
The EU, once again, is somewhere in between. “The world doesn’t need a new arms race,” said EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini dismissing the sabre-rattling as European officials are seeking to act as intermediaries between Russia and the US.
However, according to them, there is little hope they would be able to prevent a potential US withdrawal from the landmark agreement.
Even more so, as US defense secretary Jim Mattis, who handed in his resignation, was viewed as one of those that could comfort allies, no matter how off-track things appeared to be in Trump’s cabinett.
Deputy secretary Patrick Shanahan will temporarily replace Mattis on 1 January, President Trump tweeted, ending Mattis’s tenure two months prior to his planned resignation date. The sooner-than-expected departure leaves uncertainty at who will be in the seat for the crucial negotiations in February.
Quo Vadis NATO at 70?
For a brief moment this year, it looked as if the time of permanent alliances might be over. The NATO Brussels summit this summer was overshadowed by the spat over burden-sharing and doubts whether Article 5 is really set in stone for President Trump.
But Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric did not break up NATO. In April, the 70th anniversary of the Washington Treaty, which laid the foundations for the alliance, will give NATO foreign ministers a chance to try and restore lost trust.
The question of enlargement, however, is not “if” but “when”. NATO hopes to involve more Balkan countries after accepting Montenegro as a member. While the alliance now has its eyes on Bosnia-Herzegovina, in July Macedonia was invited to start accession talks and become the alliance’s 30th member, after a Greek veto kept the country in candidate status for 19 years.
According to a NATO official, an accession protocol could probably be signed in early 2019 – if the name deal is successful, despite Russia’s attempts to derail the process.
What is in for EU security post-Brexit?
The idea of strategic autonomy has been floating Brussels corridors for some time, but as the UK decided to leave the EU, Europeans started taking defence matters a step further.
“We have achieved more in these last two years than we achieved in decades on security and defence in the European Union,” Mogherini told an EU ministerial meeting in November.
While the “European army” debate, initiated first by French President Emmanuel Macron and then German Chancellor Angela Merkel, caused animosities internally and on the other side of the Atlantic, “the time has come for the EU to take its destiny into its own hands”, Parliament rapporteur David McAllister (EPP, Germany) told EU lawmakers in the annual evaluation of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CSFP) in December.
“EU member states must aim to improve their military capabilities to cover the full spectrum of land, air, space, maritime and cyber spheres, in order to make the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) a credible force,” MEPs agreed in the report.
The security partnership between mainland Europe and Britain is one of the big unknowns of next year’s EU security agenda. The current withdrawal agreement text leaves open the negotiation over cooperation terms in Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, and Eurojust, its legal agency.
Although Britain remains inside NATO structures, it is expected to miss out on several European initiatives – such as PESCO or the European Defence Fund – if no post-Brexit security agreement is reached between Brussels and London.
The decision over terms for non-EU countries to take part in PESCO projects has been postponed to early 2019, partly due to uncertainties with London.
MEPs indicated they would support setting up an EU Security Council to streamline decision-making among EU countries and replacing the unanimity requirement with qualified majority voting in the Council on CFSP matters.
A proposal likely to be presented at the Sibiu EU summit in May names ‘launching and managing civilian security and defence missions’ as one of the three areas identified by the Commission.
Mind thy neighbour
“One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans,” Otto von Bismark famously said in 1888, well before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in 1914 started World War I.
Escalating tensions and/or extremist violence in the Balkans resulting in political instability and armed clashes is estimated as ‘low likelihood’ by the Preventive Priorities Survey 2019 issued by the Council of Foreign Relation.
However, tensions in the region are likely to remain. Besides the stalling name deal between Greece and Macedonia, Kosovo’s aim to transform the country’s lightly armed security force into a de-facto army was met with restraint in Brussels security circles.
“Such a move is ill-timed. It goes against the advice of many NATO Allies. And may have serious repercussions for Kosovo’s future Euro-Atlantic integration,” NATO chief Stoltenberg stated after the decision.
Although the report considers a deliberate or unintended military confrontation between Russia and NATO members, stemming from assertive Russian behaviour in Eastern Europe as rather unlikely, fighting in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed militias and Ukrainian security forces is rated as possible to increase.
The escalation of tensions in the Azov Sea suggests that Moscow may have plans to gain new territories at the expense of Ukraine.
Despite ongoing tensions, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has announced the end of martial law in the country’s border regions that was imposed last month after Russia seized Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea.
Featuring two elections next year and the founding of a new independent national Orthodox Church, a troublesome year lies ahead on the domestic front that could contribute to instability.
Looking slightly beyond the immediate neighbourhood, a summit in August prevented further militarisation of the Caspian Sea. “Among the littoral states, Russia still has the upper hand in military matters and will continue to use the sea as it has done, for instance, to strike targets in Syria,” Morena Skalamera, a researcher for Russian Studies at Leiden University, told EURACTIV earlier this year.
“The evolution of the situation in the Black Sea (battle between Moscow and Kyiv around Crimea) is much more worrisome,” Nicholas Gosset, a research fellow at the Royal Higher Institute for Defence (RHID) in Brussels, told EURACTIV in August.
Battlefields of the future – Ice, code and the void above
Meanwhile, the geostrategic value of the Arctic rises with every inch of melted ice. Thus, it might have been no coincidence that NATO’s biggest exercises since the end of the Cold War, Trident Juncture, took place in the High North this autumn.
While China flexes its muscles around Greenland, Russia has recently invested heavily in updating its northern military infrastructure: “We’ll finish building infrastructure in 2019 to accommodate air defence radar units and aviation guidance points on the Sredny and Wrangel Islands, and on Cape Schmidt [Russian part of the Arctic]“, Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the country’s Arctic dreams in mid-December.
But while the Arctic has so far been a region of peace, preventing possible instability to spill over on relations in the Arctic will be key, as international territorial agreements still need to be found.
After a wave of cyber-attacks including WannaCry and NotPetya in 2017, the EU has stepped up its defences on another frontier: The Commission has urged member states to develop stronger cyber defence capabilities this year, passing the EU’s first cybersecurity laws. Ahead of the 2019 European elections concerns are high about raising security standards and protecting against major incidents.
Meanwhile, NATO is bracing itself as well. In recent months, several countries, including the US and Estonia, have offered the Alliance their cyber capabilities, in a message aimed primarily at Russia. At the July NATO Summit, members approved a new Cyberspace Operations Centre and the ability to draw on allies’ cyber capabilities in NATO missions and operations, as NATO does not have its own cyber weapons.
We are also likely to witness a different kind of race in outer space. The EU looks forward to taking a bigger role in space activities and the Commission presented a new space programme that unites all EU activities in this area.
After Brexit, Britain will not use Galileo, the European satellite navigation system, for defence or critical national infrastructure. “Given the Commission’s decision to bar the UK from being fully involved in developing all aspects of Galileo, it is only right that we find alternatives,” British PM Theresa May said in a statement.
In late 2019, a European Space Agency (ESA) ministerial meeting will be discussing strategic guidelines of the European space programmes. This comes at a time when Washington has announced the establishment of a ‘space force’ to be fully operational by 2020.