On defence, the ball is in Europe's court

Opinion piece (Encompass)
Sophia Besch, Luigi Scazzieri
18 October 2021

This summer’s US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent announcement of the AUKUS submarine deal should show Europeans three things. First, the US is re-orienting its foreign policy away from Europe and focusing on the Indo-Pacific region and China. Second, European military operations remain painfully dependent on US military capabilities and decisions. And third, the Biden administration is not interested in the views of its European allies: it informs them of its decisions, but it does not consult them in advance. The question is what lessons Europe should draw from these events.

The European presence in Afghanistan always depended on the US military’s logistical and intelligence support. The Afghanistan withdrawal was followed by the announcement of a deal between the US, UK and Australia to launch the AUKUS strategic partnership, underpinned by a deal for Australia to acquire nuclear submarines. AUKUS meant that Canberra tore up a previous €56 billion deal to buy French submarines, infuriating Paris.

Even before AUKUS, Europe’s impotence in Afghanistan had led some European politicians and officials to call for the EU to develop ‘strategic autonomy’ – a phrase used in European foreign and security policy debates to refer to the Union’s ability to carry out military operations without the US. This summer’s events clearly show that the tensions in transatlantic relations raised during the Trump presidency essentially remain the same under Biden. Biden may have visited Europe for meetings with NATO and the EU, and told the Munich Security Conference that “America is back”, but Washington is becoming increasingly disengaged from Europe.

However, Europe is likely to run into two obstacles as it tries to develop the defence capabilities needed to act without US support. First, the push for European strategic autonomy remains divisive. Many member-states remain sceptical of strategic autonomy, particularly the Baltic states and Poland. They see Russia as the main threat facing them, view their security as tightly linked to the US and do not want to take actions that they think might undermine NATO and hurt relations with Washington. Germany is keen to keep the US close and avoid divisions in Europe. Member-states agree that they should build up Europe’s military capabilities, but are wary of doing so under the banner of strategic autonomy.

The second issue is that the EU is trying to push strategic autonomy forward by essentially doubling down on existing initiatives, such as the flawed idea of an initial entry force. Many of its proponents regard the withdrawal from Afghanistan as strengthening the rationale for creating this force. The debate risks re-opening the debate over a ‘European army’, however, and does not address bigger underlying issues: Europe’s lack of capabilities, readiness and a common strategic outlook.

Fundamental changes in EU policy can of course happen, as in 2020, when the pandemic prompted EU leaders to finally agree to issue joint debt. For some European governments, the summer of Afghanistan and AUKUS will have a similar rallying effect. But not all leaders share the same sense of urgency to take a leap of faith on EU defence.

In the meantime, what can Europeans do to speed up the necessary shift? For one thing, they should not abandon ambitious concepts altogether. Instead, European countries sceptical of the French pitch for strategic autonomy should work to come up with a counterproposal, such as a European defence strategy that accommodates the threat perceptions of Central and Eastern European member-states and explicitly includes a role for NATO.

There is room for such a proposal. A more explicitly pro-EU centre-left government in Berlin may want to strengthen the relationship with France and might invest more capital in EU initiatives (though it will probably not raise German defence spending). The Biden administration is not opposed to a European defence complementary to NATO – the US has joined an EU project to make it easier to move military forces across Europe, is negotiating an agreement with the European Defence Agency and has agreed to launch a US-EU dedicated dialogue on security and defence.

But while Washington may encourage European efforts, Europeans will need to define their own security interests. The EU is currently working on a ‘strategic compass’, which is supposed to set out what the EU wants to do in the field of security, how it should do it, and what capabilities it needs. The process of drawing up the compass is supposed to give all member-states a more common foreign policy outlook. But achieving this will be a slow process, not a single event, meaning that member-states will need to continue to have difficult conversations even after the strategic compass has been formally completed.

Once they agree on meaningful common priorities, Europeans will need to implement them. To fill crucial capability gaps and avoid duplication, member-states need to co-ordinate capability development. Initiatives like the EU’s co-ordinated annual review on defence can in the future help match groups of countries and their defence companies with capability gaps. Through financial incentives like the European Defence Fund, the EU can also play a useful role in encouraging more development of joint capabilities. Efforts to foster interoperability between military forces and to launch joint operations will take place both in the EU, for example through Common Security and Defence Policy operations, and in other frameworks, such as NATO or coalitions of the willing.

Even if member-states follow this script, it will be years before they can handle their own security without US support. Even leaving aside the US nuclear deterrent in Europe, it will take time and money to fill capability gaps. But under the current US administration (as under its predecessor), Europeans can no longer rely on transatlantic co-ordination ‘by default’. If Europeans want to be heard in Washington, they will have to speak with one voice, and show that they can contribute to common security. A more capable Europe will be good for NATO, too – but Europeans should not expect much US guidance. It is up to them to create a more solid basis for a renewed transatlantic defence partnership, or to survive with less US help, if they must.

Sophia Besch is a senior research fellow and Luigi Scazzieri is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.