Recent geopolitical crises, in particular the disorderly withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, have cemented the thinking that the EU cannot completely depend on the United States or NATO for its protection.
Coincidentally, this week the initial draft of this plan was presented to the EU member states. The “Strategic Compass for Security and Defense” is a general outline of how cooperation could work across the bloc. The document was leaked to CNN in its entirety.
The main proposal is for the EU to gain the capacity to rapidly deploy up to 5,000 troops to deal with numerous potential crises. Rather than a standing force reporting to a commander in Brussels, these rapid deployment groups will be a collection of troops from all participating member states, trained to tackle a specific task and commanded from an EU level on that mission. Those tasks can range from an evacuation mission, as in Afghanistan, to peacekeeping on a border or humanitarian missions.
The document also speaks of the need for a joint focus on acquisitions, research and defense intelligence, which makes the bloc more competitive and efficient. It recognizes that to do this, EU and national spending would have to increase and focus on filling the gaps that currently exist across the EU as a whole.
The participation of the 27 EU countries would not be required; However, the deployment of troops on behalf of the EU would require the approval and participation of member states, and the details of how it would work have yet to be confirmed.
While the eurosceptic mockery of the idea of an “EU army” means that this latest proposal falls far short of the 1999 target of up to 60,000 soldiers ready to deploy at any time, it is still ambitious and, unusually for an EU from above. downward, multilateral. proposal, has the broad support of the 27 member states.
These are the early days, though, and coming to terms on anything costly from 27 countries facing vastly different tax and security concerns will be far from easy.
To get an idea of where the bosses are at this early stage, CNN spoke with more than 20 EU officials, diplomats and politicians from across the bloc with the aim of answering a question that many have asked for years: Have you ever will the EU have an army to call its own?
The big picture is that everyone agrees on the central point: something must be done to keep Europe safe.
Pietro Benassi, Italy’s ambassador to the EU, told CNN that while the Compass must be agreed upon by 27 nations, some that are “constitutionally neutral, [and] others who have different constitutional and military positions “, trusts that the EU can” build a common strategic culture “and that the plan will give impetus to that end.
This opinion, or some version of it, was shared by almost everyone with whom CNN spoke. However, there are longstanding divisions that will inevitably slow down that momentum.
The most enthusiastic country is undoubtedly France. President Emmanuel Macron has made no secret of his dream of a stronger Europe with greater integration in foreign affairs. He has even called for a “real European army” to reduce Europe’s need for US-led NATO protection.
The current goal is for the Strategic Compass to be agreed in March, while France holds the rotating EU presidency. But Macron might want to put the champagne on ice, as many of his European counterparts are less enthusiastic when it comes to defense.
In particular, some in the eastern EU, countries like Poland, Estonia and Lithuania, are in favor of the plan, but only if a formal agreement makes specific reference to the threat posed by Russia and, to a lesser extent, China.
At present, the document addresses the deterioration of the EU’s relationship with its neighbor, but also says that “common interests and a shared culture, in fact, unite the EU and Russia,” and that it would still engage with ” Russia on some specific issues where they have shared priorities. ” Eastern states have also raised concerns about any plans that undermine NATO.
Equally concerned about Russia are the Scandinavians. Diplomats and officials from these countries explained that “Russia runs a real risk in this part of the world” and made it clear that “the transatlantic alliance must be strengthened as part of any broader EU plan.”
Multiple officials, diplomats and politicians said they believed Macron was the main stumbling block, reluctant to point the finger at Russia.
Next, the so-called “frugal” ones. This is not exactly the same “Frugal Four” – Denmark, which has a Strategic Compass opt-out, the Netherlands, Austria and Sweden – that made life difficult for the EU when it signed its Covid package last year.
However, officials in some of these countries expressed concern that the troops assigned to the rapid deployment teams would never be used, that the action would be vetoed, and it would all end in a loss of money that undermined NATO and undermined the alliance. ocean liner.
The last piece of the puzzle is Germany. The EU’s richest country is still negotiating its next coalition government and officials say it is very difficult to predict exactly how belligerent Berlin will be next year.
A German diplomat told CNN: “We still don’t know who will lead the defense. It seems likely that it will be the Socialists, who will be willing to make small contributions in things like field hospitals and not participate abroad like France, I think you might want to. let us do it. It could be a real disagreement. ”
Despite all the potential dangers, there is a sincere optimism that these differences can be bridged if everyone gets real and serious.
Rasa Juknevičienė, Member of the European Parliament and former Lithuanian Defense Minister, says that “only the EU is capable of solving” the hybrid threats it faces from hostile actors in Russia and China. However, he expresses concern that if the bloc cannot agree on issues ranging from cyber security, military capability, a “more realistic view of Russia” and above all spending, then “it will be as it says. Greta Thunberg, just blah blah. ” straw.”
Former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb believes that Brussels’ renewed enthusiasm for security is “timely, important and realistic. The United States will not stand behind European security forever.”
He says that if Europe wants to be serious about protecting itself, “it needs to understand that the line between war and peace is blurring … soft power has become a weapon and it has become hard power. We see that with asylum seekers being used as weapons. ” . We see with information, commerce, energy and vaccines that are used as weapons ”.
The EU has been widely applauded for the sincere scope of its ambition, and analysts hope they can reach a meaningful agreement on one of the most sensitive issues in European diplomacy.
Velina Tchakarova, director of the Austrian Institute for European Policy and Security, acknowledges that finding a consensus will be a long process, but she may see a positive move.
“Once approved … there will be concrete directions in which the EU and member states must go when it comes to forging partnerships and alliances, enhancing capacities, building resilience in key domains and sectors, and ultimately achieving a crisis. fast and efficient. management based on shared strategic assessment of common threats “.
It would be an extraordinary achievement. While it is not the EU Army that many longed for or feared, depending on your perspective, it is comforting to see member states so widely on the same page on an issue that clearly needs to be addressed.
However, this is really the beginning of the process and there are many policies to overcome, including next year’s French elections that could oust Macron, the main cheerleader, from office.
And politics is often what ruins Brussels’ best laid plans. Steven Blockmans, research director at the Center for European Policy Studies, says that “for rubber to hit the road, member states will have to put aside their internal concerns of blood and treasure and let common security interests prevail. Any individual member state could therefore delay or veto deployment for so-called ‘vital’ national security concerns. “
Despite all the positive sounds now, it is quite possible that once all 27 leaders are locked in a room to discuss this proposal, the naked national interest and earlier grievances will take over and this plan will be watered down or shelved.
And while the top brass in Brussels remain optimistic that this plan is a sufficient compromise to avoid such petulance, when there is so much money on the table and political capital at stake, diplomacy, compromise and unity can easily go out the window. .
Which, for the EU, would hardly be the first time.