Outside NATO

After Trump Criticism, EU Agrees Joint Defense Steps

Trump, critic. Europe, Defense
Will an EU battle group soon be deployed? Source: Reuters

Galvanized by US President Donald Trump’s stinging criticism of European defense policy, the European Union agreed Monday on a first step toward forming an integrated defense force without the participation of the United States.

An agreement was reached by foreign and defense ministers from 23 of the EU’s 27 member nations on what has been dubbed Permanent Structured Cooperation or PESCO, which is likely to lead initially to higher defense spending and cooperation on developing weapons systems.

“It is important for us, especially after the election of the American president, to establish ourselves independently,” said German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen. “If there is a crisis in our neighborhood, we must be able to act.”

“Europe needs to be able to act for its own security, This will allow Europe to take a step toward its strategic autonomy.”

Jean-Yves Le Drian, French Defense Minister

She was referring to comments by Mr. Trump during the 2016 election campaign, in which he said 23 European nations had failed to meet their financial obligations to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and that the United States might only come to the defense of those countries that “fulfill their obligations to us.”

Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who has opposed Germany increasing defense spending, called the PESCO decision “a milestone in European development.”

Germany is currently spending below the mandated 2 percent of GDP required by NATO members, but Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed to increase the defense budget once a new coalition government takes office in Berlin.

“Europe needs to be able to act for its own security,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters after the meeting in Brussels. “This will allow Europe to take a step toward its strategic autonomy.”

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The creation of a joint European defense force has been a policy goal of the French since President Charles de Gaulle first proposed the idea shortly after World War II. It was always blocked by Britain, which feared a loss of continental influence if the French dream were realized.

But because of Britain’s vote to leave the EU, the British veto has now disappeared. Only Britain and Denmark have said they will not participate in the joint EU military planning, while Portugal, Malta and Ireland have not yet decided. Even neutral Austria has decided to join.

An American historian, Walter Russell Mead, described the joint defense plan as an initiative by France and others that were originally concerned about Germany’s growing economic and political heft in Europe. But he added that Brexit had changed the calculus of power in Europe.

‘With the UK leaving, France is now the greatest military power in the EU, and would necessarily exercise a lot of influence over an EU-only defense organization,” Mr. Mead wrote in the American Prospect. “It is partly about reducing the power of NATO, an alliance France has thought was too US-centric going back to the time of de Gaulle.”

EU leaders will have to agree to the 16-page plan later this year, while disagreements over precise funding questions were left for officials to negotiate next year. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said there was support for deploying EU battle groups, which were made operational in 2007 but never used. The battle groups are composed of 1,500 troops from a coalition of EU states.

PESCO’s first concrete projects could be the establishment of shared logistics hubs for the transport of troops and equipment or a joint military medical organization. They are also likely to agree on details of a proposed €5 billion joint European defense fund.

Donata Riedel writes about economic policy for Handelsblatt and Charles Wallace is an editor for Handelsblatt Global in New York. To contact the authors: riedel@handelsblatt.com and c.wallace@extern.handelsblatt.com.

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