France and Germany both support the idea of creating a European military headquarters, but Paris has the most to gain from the project. EURACTIV France reports.
Dotted among the civil servants in the External Action Service, the EU’s foreign affairs ministry, it is not unusual to see military personnel wearing any one of 28 different uniforms.
They belong to the European Union Military Committee (EUMC), a permanent structure based in Brussels, which brings together military representatives from each of the 28 member states. The EUMC is a consultative body with no decision-making power.
France on the front line
“Once a joint operation is planned, we have to create an effective operations team. Most often it is France that takes responsibility for this,” a high-ranking French official complained. But for both financial and political reasons, France does not always want to be on the front line of Europe’s military campaigns.
French President François Hollande made similar comments at the Bratislava summit on Friday (16 September).
“France is making the main effort on European defence, but it cannot be alone and does not want to be alone. It can lead, but it wants Europe, with France, to be able to defend itself, in alliance with our American partner,” Hollande said.
The creation of a permanent EU military headquarters, supported by Jean-Claude Juncker in his State of the Union speech last Wednesday, is firmly on the agendas of France and Germany. In a joint statement, the defence ministers of both countries mentioned the urgent need for a shared and permanent European headquarters, to oversee the deployment of EU troops abroad, coordinate satellite observations and share logistical or medical capabilities.
Under this approach, close military cooperation would take place within a select inner circle, to avoid all decisions having to be taken by 28 member states.
Building Europe’s military autonomy
The surprising acceleration of EU defence talks is a result of an increasingly unstable international environment. But perhaps the main reason is the uncertainty surrounding the future of the United States.
The decreasing involvement of the US in the Middle East opened the eyes of European leaders to the changing balance of global power. And the possible election of Donald Trump is another source of concern for France. “Populism is not just a European problem, as the American election campaign shows. We have to prepare ourselves for the global instability that could occur as a result,” a diplomat said.
Hollande also pushed the issue in Bratislava. “Everyone should know that if the United States chooses to draw back, Europe must be able to defend itself,” he said.
The question of funding
However, the EU still needs to answer the question of how it will finance this new project. The German and French ministers promised a joint proposal by the end of the year. In his State of the Union speech, Juncker called for a European Defence Fund “to turbo boost research and innovation”.
In France, the idea of absorbing military spending in a fund financed by European bonds is beginning to gain traction. But this idea, originally developed by the ex-minister for economy Thierry Breton, is likely to fall foul of German sensibilities.
The subject of EU debt, for security or otherwise, is still a big taboo in Berlin. Even if it would loosen some member states’ budgetary constraints. France has long been demanding that its military spending be excluded from budget deficit calculations, which would allow it more easily to bring its deficit down to within the EU’s 3% limit.