Europeans must urgently draw lessons from the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Dismissing people who are attracted to political extremes as racists, misogynists, chauvinists, or backward protectionists is dangerous, particularly as the Netherlands, France, and Germany go to the polls this year. Elites must stop grabbing on to the status quo for dear life. A crack in the ceiling is bothersome but can be a fantastic opportunity to redo the kitchen.
European defense cooperation offers the best area in which to do things differently to directly address European citizens’ concerns, especially on security issues, and demonstrate that the EU can bring added value to its member states and their people.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, harnessed a somewhat desperate energy after the UK’s June 2016 vote to leave the EU to propose concrete initiatives, ranging from setting up an operational headquarters to kick-starting defense-related research and development. The trick now will be to deliver European defense cooperation and encourage mainstream political parties to sell that message to their publics.
The good news is that the EU already has most of the tools to take the European project to the next level, at least in defense cooperation. The Brexit vote provides an opportunity to use the provisions of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty to move forward. On one hand, the UK is, with France, a major military power in Europe. Britain’s exit will mean a serious loss of capabilities for the EU, making closer cooperation among the 27 remaining member states a necessity. On the other hand, the UK has blocked a number of EU initiatives on the grounds that they would either lead to duplication with NATO or, indeed, replace the alliance. Brexit will remove London’s brake on EU defense cooperation.
But as it becomes clear that cooperation among all 27 countries may not work, Germany intends to press ahead with France and other like-minded European partners. Berlin is seeking to use what’s called permanent structured cooperation, to which all EU member states agreed and which is spelled out in the Lisbon Treaty. Essentially, this instrument allows willing EU countries to strengthen their cooperation on military matters. Member states could also make much greater use of the European Defense Agency, which was set up to coordinate and encourage the development of defense capabilities, research, and acquisitions of equipment.
There is also the Lisbon Treaty’s important mutual-defense clause, which should have the potential of NATO’s Article 5, which obliges allies to assist each other if one is attacked. The EU’s own mutual-defense clause, Article 42(7) of the EU treaty, could reassure the union’s Eastern member states. That is particularly important as tensions with Russia show no sign of abating and, coupled with the new U.S. administration’s lack of enthusiasm for the transatlantic relationship, continue to be cause for concern.
Should the United States no longer honor NATO’s Article 5 because European allies are not holding up their end of the spending bargain, the EU’s Article 42(7) would be a valuable backup. It is true that Europeans do not currently have the bandwidth to fill the gap if the U.S. military disengages from the continent. But a core group of European states working together with a strong political will could step up in a relatively short time.
And don’t forget the EU’s battle groups. These formations were meant to be highly flexible military units that could be deployed in a matter of days. January 2017 marks the tenth anniversary of their operational capability, but they have never been used; instead, they have been the subject of timid discussions in think tanks. Now is the time to put them back on policymakers’ agendas.
Away from the debate on an EU army, the flexibility of the battle group concept could provide the EU’s foreign policy with teeth and credibility. In addition, the gains in interoperability from deploying these units would be invaluable for future cooperation and development of capabilities. Combined with the EU’s planned coordinated annual review on defense, feedback from the battle groups’ experience could provide key input into a comprehensive road map for European defense.
These steps have to happen now, before the Netherlands, France, and Germany head to the polls. The traditional excuse of waiting until after an election is no longer valid as the new U.S. president risks the international order with a series of executive decisions.
In short, it’s time for Europeans to stop complaining about the new U.S. administration and making excuses for their own lack of cooperation. There is no need for the EU to reinvent itself or propose new agencies. The EU should get on and use what’s already available.
Pauline Massart is deputy director for security and geopolitics at Friends of Europe and vice president for outreach and operations at Women in International Security (WIIS) Brussels.