European officials point out that in order to provide security of Kabul airport, they needed just 5000 troops, but they failed to do so. While some of the proponents of strategic autonomy believe that Kabul fall served as a wake-up call for European countries, some others see no existential threat against Europe. They continue to call for their activities as a junior U.S. partner. Although European countries were calling for the continuation of the Western forces’ activities in Afghanistan and confronting the Taliban, yet they had no other options but to go along with the U.S. and withdraw from the country. Because from logistical, aerial support, and of course, safe evacuation of their citizens points of view, they were relying on the U.S. These developments have revived once again the old idea of European army as well as the strategic autonomy.
For example, Josep Burrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy said:” the necessity for further integration in the field of European defense was never felt as clear as it is now, especially after the recent developments in Afghanistan. Europe should set up its 5000-strong rapid reaction force”. Followed by the meeting of the EU defense ministers, he also announced that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan may catalyze the formation of a permanent military defensive force.
Amid all this, the position of German defense minister has surprised many. He tweeted that “with a common decision of all EU member states, common measures could still be continued”. German defense minister had already written an article in Politico magazine in November that the illusion of the strategic autonomy of Europe must end, and Europeans can’t find an alternative for the vital role of the U.S. as the provider of security.
While Emanuel Macron is considered as the most important proponent of European strategic autonomy and the phrase of strategic autonomy is the symbol of military, economic and technologic independence of Europe from the U.S. In a joint statement with the Dutch Premier, Macron reiterated again on strategic autonomy and more responsibility in defense and security fields.
Now, the question is whether such ideas could be translated into actions or not?
Idea of European United Army & obstacles to realize
The idea to set up European army is not a new concept in European developments. The idea had already been raised in 1950s. A few decades later and after the failure of European countries in adopting a joint position against Kosovo crisis, Saint-Malo meeting between Jacque Chirac the then French President and Tony Blair the then UK Prime Minister in 1998 paved the ground for compilation of European Security and Defense Policy. In the policy, it was recommended that the EU capabilities to take independent military action should be developed. However, at the time the U.S. warned that such policy should not be in parallel with NATO and this should not drive a wedge between NATO and EU and thus discriminate against non-member states in the EU. European countries also agreed upon setting up an army with 50000 to 60000 personnel in 1999. However, the plan was ultimately confined to carry out some non-serious missions.
Setting up the European army also faces very important impediments. First, the defense costs for European countries. Although, all NATO member states, excluding the U.S., have increased their defense budget after Ukraine crisis in 2014 but estimations suggest that in 2021 only 9 member states of the EU will remain abided by 2% of their GDP allocation to spend in defense field (for example Germany has allocated only 1.53% to this field). Second, some believe that the recent developments in Afghanistan can’t be considered as an impetus to set up European army, because within the past decade, many Europeans attached no importance for the developments of the country. Likewise, in Europe neither Poland nor Baltic States are in favor of the formation of a mechanism in which the U.S. will not be present. Warsaw, for example believes that setting up the European army may weaken the armies of NATO member states.
Third, some of the European members can’t be convinced that the European common defense could provide the same security for Europeans as NATO have provided during the past decades. Also, there is no consensus among the European countries on which issue or which country is considered as a vital threat? For example, Russia is considered as an existential threat by Baltic States, while Moscow is seen as an important partner in energy field by Germany.
Fourth, there is not any specific mechanism for decision making among member states. There is also a possibility that some of common decisions of the EU might have been taken on a case basis beyond the structural organization of the EU. Some are also concerned about it that an offensive European military plan will lead to further disintegration in the present lukewarm relations between Brussels and Washington.
Of course, the European countries have also taken positive steps to set up European army within the recent years. For example, Permanent Structured Cooperation started in 2017, the objective of which is cooperation among European countries in all defensive fields. A budget of 8 billion euro has been allocated to finance Research and Development for common defensive plans (known as Multilateral Financial Framework) for the fiscal years 2021-2027. Likewise, European countries are looking for a comprehensive strategic document until 2022 to be compiled for feasibility of converting defensive forces to a common army which by itself, is considered as a taboo in many European countries.
In the recent report published by the Center for American Progress, one of the think-tanks close to Biden, it was recommended that time is ripe for the European Union to turn into a global military power, and the U.S. should stop raising impediments to realize the European causes in defense field. In fact, the idea is brought forward that European Defense Union may strengthen NATO and the West. European strategic autonomy is meant with ability of the European states to set their priorities and to take independent decisions in foreign, defense and security policy, having necessary instruments to carry out the very same decisions individually or if required with the collaboration of other partners. Most of proponents of the European strategic autonomy argue that Europe should assume a larger share in European security, especially when the U.S. is unwilling to play a greater role in providing security for Europe. They underscore that this does not mean full autonomy or opposing with coalition or cooperation. On the other side, many opponents of European strategic autonomy warn that over concentration on strategic autonomy is an expression of disdain that weakens NATO and deepens the gap between the two shores of the Atlantic. Some also believe that such European measures may lead the U.S. to conclude that Europeans are not thankful to her role.