Europe aims for greater ‘strategic autonomy’ from US on defence

Canadian Armed Forces from the NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup in Latvia to demonstrate the teamwork with Latvian, Italian, Spanish, Polish and US allies. [EPA-EFE/VALDA KALNINA]

EU leaders pledged in Brussels on Thursday (28 June) to intensify efforts to strengthen military cooperation within the bloc and reduce its reliance on the United States, amid growing doubts over the continued US involvement in transatlantic security.

The leaders, meeting for a two-day summit that mostly dealt with migration, stepped up preparations to increase the bloc’s “strategic autonomy” from the US while also stressing the need to intensify EU-NATO cooperation.

They pledged closer defence cooperation, focusing on increased spending and strengthening intra-European military cooperation.

“Europe must take greater responsibility for its own security and underpin its role as a credible and reliable actor and partner in the area of security and defence,” the summit conclusions read.

The conclusions on security and defence were relatively uncontroversial and were adopted unanimously. But they were officially published only before dawn as Italy blocked the adoption of a full set of conclusions until an agreement was found on migration.

In line with previous texts, EU leaders agreed to take steps towards increased spending on joint defence research, capability development and operational readiness to deploy troops more quickly. The summit communiqué also backed the creation of an EU command centre for civilian crisis management missions and a new European Defence Fund.

17 PESCO projects

In particular, leaders called for the rapid completion of the PESCO (permanent structured cooperation) programme started in late 2017, under which 25 countries committed troops to EU battle groups and vowed to launch projects that enhance the interoperability of their armed forces.

At present, it includes 17 joint projects on different capability areas. A third set of projects will be agreed in November this year, the conclusions state.

EU defence ministers hold ‘historic’ first meeting in PESCO format

EU defence ministers yesterday (6 March) held their first meeting in the ‘PESCO format’. This means that, although ministers from all EU member states were present, only those participating in the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) pact were involved in adopting legal acts.

“On European defence, things are advancing at an unprecedented rate compared to past decades: It is becoming reality,” French President Emmanuel Macron said upon arrival at the summit on Thursday.

The need for establishing a functioning European defence comes at a time when the United States, under President Donald Trump’s“ America first” policy, questions Europe’s commitment to NATO and the value of the alliance itself.

Following an initiative by France, nine countries including Britain and Germany signed the declaration on a “European Intervention Initiative” this week, meant to enable a faster military response in crisis situations through a much closer cooperation between the General Staffs of European member states.

Since last September, the proposal for the intervention initiative has been driven by Macron and is intentionally designed as a parallel project outside the EU framework in order to allow Britain, Europe’s biggest military power, to take part.

According to military circles, in the long term, the French ideas could lead to a fully equipped joint intervention force. However, it is emphasised that the French ideas are in no case intended to replace NATO and are meant to be “complementary” with the alliance.

The communique calls for an action plan by December 2018 for a coordinated response to disinformation campaigns and stresses the need to strengthen capabilities against cyber threats.

Rift in transatlantic relations ahead of July NATO summit

Growing security threats in Europe’s backyard after 2014 have shown that European countries have too few well-armed forces in a state of high readiness. In the past four years, the EU and NATO have taken initiatives to increase Europe’s ability for joint engagement. The reforms discussed by the EU leaders in Brussels therefore also include a call for better coordination with NATO.

Nevertheless, it is evident that the transatlantic partnership is under strain.

“Despite our tireless efforts to keep the unity of the West, transatlantic relations are under immense pressure due to the policies of President Trump,” European Council President Donald Tusk wrote to leaders in a letter ahead of the meeting. “It is my belief that, while hoping for the best, we must be ready to prepare our Union for worst-case scenarios.”

NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, who took part in the Summit discussions, sought to emphasise the cohesion. “We should have no illusions, Europe and America need each other now in the face of security threats we haven’t seen for many decades. We have to stand together. NATO-EU cooperation is part of this transatlantic relationship.”

With the crucial NATO summit due in Brussels in mid-July, the focus will once again be on burden sharing, in other words, defence spending.

For decades, Washington has been urging its European NATO allies to increase their military budgets. America spends more of its GDP on military than any other NATO member — 3.61% or around $610 billion in 2017.

In comparison, combined military spending in Europe was $342 billion in 2017, a decrease of 2.2% compared to the year before.

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