With countries across the globe reeling from the disorganized exit of the United States and NATO from Afghanistan, officials from the European Union’s 27-nation bloc have underscored the importance of finding ways to improve their response in potential future crises and not be solely reliant on the United States.
Along with the US exit from Afghanistan, the Trump Administration’s “America first” foreign policy also played a crucial role in forcing Europe to consider more independent defence policies. Currently, the EU lacks the military capabilities to consider independent defence initiatives required to tackle geo-strategic initiatives. Constrained defence budgets and increased reliance on the United States along with disproportionate national allocations to NATO are some of the headwinds that pose a challenge to the bloc.
Without the US, “NATO is a very limited concept and very limited force”, said British General Richard Barrons. In the event of a strategic risk perception by the EU diverging with that the United States, the bloc will be left responsible for defending its interests. Thus, there appears to be a clear need towards a more independent European foreign policy which will empower the EU to intervene and protect its strategic interests and priorities.
To this end, earlier last month, officials from the EU’s Defence and Foreign Affairs ministries met in Slovenia, along with NATO and UN officials, to discuss ways to improve the bloc’s operational engagement and capability to respond in challenging military war theatres.
In the meeting, ministers also discussed plans for a so-called strategic compass, which essentially is a document aimed at harmonizing crisis management as well as defining the EU’s defence ambitions. The document is expected to be drafted before the end of this year.
As reported by Reuters, the “Strategic Compass” draft plan includes many a points that must be agreed by EU leaders at a summit in March 2022. The major points in the draft plan are:
- A joint military force of up to 5,000 troops to intervene in a range of crises without relying on the United States.
- Developing a joint “Rapid Deployment Capacity” made up of land, sea and air components by 2025.
- Agreement on scenarios in which such a rapid reaction force might be used, and then from 2023 begin regular military exercises, including naval drills.
- Setting up the goal of being able to run all its training missions, as well as smaller missions and exercises, from a single headquarters by 2025 and by 2030 it should run all missions.
- Making its special Joint Cyber Unit fully operational by next year. Clarity needed to have “offensive” cyber capacities to disable foreign computer networks or not.
- Develop new battle tanks and “future combat air systems” by a date to be set in agreement with EU states.
- The plan aims to “substantially fill by 2025 critical capability gaps”. Long-range military air transport, space communication technology, and intelligence capacity – “strategic enablers” in military parlance – are all lacking in the EU.
- More coordination of European naval presences in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as maritime exercises and patrols – as part of a Western strategy to counter China’s military rise.
“It’s clear that the need for more European defence has never been as much as evident as today after the events in Afghanistan,” said Josep Borrell, EU’s foreign policy chief. “There are events that catalyse the history. Sometimes something happens that pushes the history, it creates a breakthrough and I think the Afghanistan events of this summer are one of these cases.”
The US decision to pull troops from war torn Afghanistan, its subsequent disorganized exit and the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Kabul and the entire country have laid bare the EU’s dependene on its ally. Without Washington’s support, European countries would struggle to guarantee the safe passage of their citizens or their troops from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
“The strategic situation, the geostrategic changes, show that now we need a stronger Europe,” said Claudio Graziano, the chairman of the EU military committee. “The situation in Afghanistan, Libya, Middle East, Sahel, show that now it’s the time to act starting with the creation of a rapid European entry force able to show the will of the European Union to act as a global strategic partner. When if not now, later would be late.”
Hammering out a consensus among the 27 EU member states is a challenging task. Countries in the bloc which share a border with Russia often oppose the idea of autonomy, with Poland the Baltic nations being a case in point. Germany, a European powerhouse, is a strong supporter of using the US Defence umbrella in Europe and is keen to use NATO for security operations.
For EU countries located in Eastern Europe, Russian belligerence adds a measure of urgency to the question of strategic autonomy. The lingering ambiguity of Washington’s willingness to fulfill commitments contained in Article V also contributes to the EU security policy initiatives.
The deployments of forces on NATO’s eastern flank is likely to be of strategic importance since it will force Moscow to calculate the cost of any future belligerence. Efforts to boost force readiness and maintain operational forward deployments in Eastern Europe could support European defence autonomy and promote military cohesion within NATO.
While the EU is already empowered with rapid reaction teams, comprising of around 1,500 personnel, they have never been deployed in major crises; further, the EU does not deploy them to active conflict zones outside the bloc.
To mitigate the issue, Slovenian Defence Minister Matej Tonin said defence ministers have begun debating on ways to send soldiers abroad in a fast and efficient manner, without requiring a consensus from all EU member states, by lifting the unanimity requirement.
“Maybe the solution is we invent a mechanism where a classical majority will be enough and those who are willing will be able to go,” said Tonin. “If a majority within the European Union decides to send somewhere the troops, they can go in the name of the European Union. And the countries which will participate in these groups will be let’s say the willing countries. So that we don’t force the countries who don’t want be part of that mission.”
The situation at Sahel, Africa, could be to a certain extend compared with that of Afghanistan, with France preparing to reduce its military presence in the West Africa region and extremist groups possibly expanding their territorial control in the region.
Earlier this year in June, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the end of Operation Barkhane, a seven-year fight against terror groups linked to the Islamic State and al-Qaida. In the coming months, Paris aims to trim its more than 5,000 troops from the country. Macron has not provided a timeframe for the reduction in troops.
Analysts and observers have expressed worries on the French move since it is likely to lead to increased instability in the region.
“We learned very important lessons and that we should not repeat the same mistakes in the Sahel,” said Tonin. “It’s even more important for the European Union than Afghanistan. It can have greater consequences.”
The idea of ‘European Sovereignty’ is best embodied by Macron’s vision of strategic autonomy for the European Union.
The EU needs strategic autonomy “not because I am against NATO or because I doubt our American friends…but because I think we need a fair sharing of the burden and Europe cannot delegate the protection of its neighborhood to the USA,” said Macron.
Germany’s outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel backs this view. It is important that Europe “take [its] fate into [its] own hands, opined Merkel.
Policy continuity among EU members will determine the efficacy of the bloc’s independent security agenda.