YOSSI MEKELBERG December 21, 2021
The EU is once again at a crossroads that requires bold decisions, in the face of severe cracks from within and relentless external challenges that require new and radical ways of thinking if this union of states is to survive and stay relevant as a force for good.
From the outset, the European project set for itself a goal that was idealistic, in the best possible sense: To bring peace and stability to the world. For historical and psychological reasons, throughout its evolution the EU has been hesitant to develop a common foreign and security policy, and even more reluctant to establish a military force.
However, the prophetic message of the founding father of the European idea, Robert Schuman, that “world peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it,” is more true now than ever.
One of the recurring ideas that surfaces among European leaders when faced with a fresh external threat is the establishment an independent military force. Increasingly, it enters into European thinking that in international affairs it is no longer enough to concentrate on economic and soft power while relying for hard power on NATO, as that organization does not necessarily provide the answers to an increasingly polarized and conflictual international arena.
In a world where one crisis is rapidly followed by another, there is a price to be paid for the failure of Brussels to develop its own mechanism of response and, instead, remain dependent on the US to lead. Or for being too passive when, for instance, another conflict emerges in the neighboring Middle East, or Russia rattles the cage of regional stability.
The messy withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan in August has sent a clear message to EU strategists that it is necessary to lead from the front whenever European interests and values do not coincide with those of friends and foes alike.
The formation of an EU military force is not a new idea, to the extent that it is closely associated with the natural development of the European project from an economic community to a closer political, legal and social association.
One of the EU’s more immediately pressing vulnerabilities was exposed by the deliberate mayhem instigated by Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, an ally of President Putin, in orchestrating border crossings by refugees who had been residing in his country into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. This was retaliation for sanctions imposed on Belarus for its brutal crackdown on opposition activists protesting against Lukashenko’s highly questionable electoral victory last year.
The EU’s lack of capacity to adequately respond to this type of cynical, hybrid act of aggression was revealing — and this at a time when Russia has been deploying its troops close to its border with Ukraine in a menacing fashion that leaves little room for doubt about Moscow’s true intentions.
Can the EU rely solely on NATO to respond to threats such as these? There are growing concerns that salvation for the union will not come from the neighboring NATO headquarters in Brussels, and that there is instead a need to build a European capacity to address such threats, to complement the more established Western security alliance.
The formation of an EU military force is not a new idea, to the extent that it is closely associated with the natural development of the European project from an economic community to a closer political, legal and social association. Common foreign and security policies are the most obvious missing pieces in the jigsaw for those who aspire to advance their vision of a more unified and powerful EU.
In early 2015, Jean-Claude Juncker, at the time the president of the European Commission, put forward a proposal for the formation of a European Army, stating that the purpose of this new force would be to deal with the threat posed by Russia and to participate in the defense of non-NATO EU member states.
Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron expressed support for this idea in 2018, especially in the face of the volatile nature of US president Donald Trump, whose commitment to NATO and European defense could not be taken for granted. His successor in the White House, Joe Biden, has repeatedly reiterated his commitment to NATO but his administration’s chaotic abandonment of Afghanistan left many in Europe with doubts about the strength of this commitment.
A European Army — whether a full-blown standing army or a smaller force comprising several thousand rapid-deployment troops, as is apparently suggested by a new EU proposal titled the “Strategic Compass for Security and Defense” — would be meaningless unless it were to become a tool of an agreed, EU-wide common foreign and security policy, that could be utilized in times of crisis in line with the organization’s strategy.
Ursula von der Leyen, the current European Commission president and a former German defense minister, is one high-profile proponent of the idea of an EU military force. In her State of the Union address in September she emphasized the need to reflect on how the mission in Afghanistan had ended so abruptly, in what was a coded criticism of the US and NATO.
Her conclusion was that although more cooperation is necessary, this alone is insufficient and it is up to the EU to do more on its own to provide security and stability in “our neighborhood and across different regions.”
For her, it is about recognizing that Europe’s geopolitical vulnerabilities demand that it must itself be prepared to help deal with overseas crises, otherwise it will end up having to deal with such crises on its own soil. Moreover, the nature of the threats we see today is rapidly changing and requires more agility than ever when it comes to dealing with cyber or hybrid attacks and threats from militant, non-state actors and from a growing arms race in space, all of which require a cutting-edge approach to security. Furthermore, if Europe wants to stay true to its values of delivering humanitarian aid and sustaining peacekeeping operations, it is going to need its own forces in place that reflect these ideals and ambitions.
This might not be the most conducive period in recent European history during which to embark on the idea of building a European military force, given that populism has taken hold on some parts of the continent, the UK has left the union and the world is in the middle of a pandemic that is draining decision makers, and everyone else, of both energy and resources.
However, the security challenges that are presenting themselves almost daily, and the general failure of the international community to stand up to them, suggest that the EU must rise above its internal differences and natural hesitancy regarding such an endeavor and develop a military capability to defend itself and its beliefs, in full cooperation with other like-minded countries and international organizations.
• Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House.
Twitter: @YMekelbergDisclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view
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