All of a sudden, the European Union is in a big hurry to start integrating its military. After years of dawdling over the objectives enshrined in the Treaty of Lisbon to fully integrate its military or at least set up a cooperative framework, the bloc has finally been motivated by the exit of Britain and the election of Donald Trump as US president to get serious about military cooperation.
The first step is establishing the Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO, to pull together at least 20 EU countries in jointly planning, developing and coordinating weapons and equipment for military forces. The EU summit this week will affirm efforts so far and set deadlines this year for countries to make firm commitments to the project and to its joint budget. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, whose countries have the biggest military forces along with Britain, are the main proponents of closer cooperation.
But it’s an open question whether member countries can overcome their national egoism and give up even a modicum of sovereignty to literally join forces for the bloc’s security. Earlier efforts in weapons development, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon and A400M transport plane, were marred by national rivalries, planning errors, cost overruns, multiple delays and mixed results in the final product.
Also, it is far from certain that backing into military integration through PESCO without integration of command and training will be any more successful than backing into economic integration through a joint currency without a common budget or fiscal policy. Attempting either without firmer foundations in Europe-wide democratic accountability seems problematic.
“No matter what Germany’s next federal government looks like, it has a great opportunity to join forces with France and make decisive strides forward for Europe.”
Nonetheless, the outgoing grand coalition government approved Germany’s commitment in its last meeting Wednesday. Already this step, taken by a government technically in caretaker mode, shows a democratic deficit. Since it commits government spending down the road and eventually may bind Germany to military intervention, it is certainly the kind of measure that would benefit from a full airing in parliament. Even though Ms. Merkel is virtually certain to remain chancellor, it is unsure just what defense policy her new coalition will adopt or even whether the chancellor’s Christian Democrats keep the defense ministry.
But in their haste to show some constructive development in the EU, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Macron want to push ahead as rapidly as possible. “No matter what Germany’s next federal government looks like, it has a great opportunity to join forces with France and make decisive strides forward for Europe,” is the way Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen put it this week in an op-ed for Handelsblatt’s sister publication Wirtschaftswoche.
Even before the politicians can seal the deal, however, national rivalries threaten to torpedo the first common project they are backing – a European drone. Promoted by Italy and Spain as well as Germany and France, the project is already faltering because Airbus, the multinational aerospace group headed by German CEO Tom Enders, and Dassault, the French builder of the Rafale jet fighter, both think they should take the lead in the project. Industry sources are skeptical of the project anyway because the budget is too small.
In Germany, the mainstream parties are able to cloak their diverse interests in the same language, at least for now. Henning Otte, defense expert for the Christian Democrats, said he is happy Germany can set a good example. “Our long-term goal is a European defense union,” he told Handelsblatt. His counterpart for the Greens, Tobias Lindner, also spoke in favor of PESCO. “It makes sense to procure gear and equipment together and to coordinate procedures,” he told Handelsblatt.
Social Democrats did not hesitate to sign off on the project in this last cabinet meeting. “We’re happy that European defense cooperation is now taking shape,” said Michael Roth, the Social Democratic state minister in the Foreign Office. He went on to caution that the green light for PESCO does not mean automatic approval for the controversial goal of Germany increasing its military spending to the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP.
Specifically, Wednesday’s cabinet decision committed Germany to increase its defense spending, better equip the Bundeswehr (the unified German military forces) and to be ready to contribute to a new European defense fund. It also agreed to find common standards with other countries for the military’s capabilities, for new weapons systems, for IT systems, and for rapid deployment of forces.
The EU plan is for participating countries to firmly commit by mid-November and then by mid-December have a list of concrete projects and potential weapons systems for cooperation as well as setting the initial contributions for the common defense fund. At just €5 billion, it is not a military fund that will strike fear into the heart of Europe’s potential adversaries or even contribute significantly to protecting Europe’s outer borders. It bears no comparison, of course, to the $600 billion-plus the United States spends on defense or even the $56 billion spent by France, which has the largest military budget in the EU.
It is telling that PESCO as the first step in military integration still goes by its English abbreviation. Britain, the second-biggest military spender in the EU after France, will leave a big gap in any integration. Just how much scope there is for combining forces given the ongoing role of NATO is also a question.
The latest effort by the two West European leaders of the EU to push for integration comes as resistance to centralization is building in Central and Eastern Europe. Austria handed a majority to right-wing parties in elections last week and Czech Republic voters may make a billionaire nationalist, Andrej Babis, the winner in its national elections this week. Poland and Hungary are already showing strong resistance to Brussels. It will be difficult to build a common defense amid all this infighting.
Handelsblatt reporters Ruth Berschens, Thomas Hanke, Till Hoppe, Donata Riedel and Thomas Sigmund contributed to this article. Handelsblatt Global editor Darrell Delamaide adapted it into English. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com.