The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has shown that deficiencies in the European Union’s capacity to act autonomously come at a price. The only way forward is to combine EU forces and strengthen not only its capabilities but also its will to act through a European Defence Union.
The idea of a European Defence Force is often discussed within the EU; it has been on the table since the union’s foundation. Indeed, the EU’s interest in defence generally rises and falters depending on its threat perceptions and member states’ engagements with them.
“What has held us back until now is not just a shortfall of capacity – it is the lack of political will” – Ursula von der Leyen
But the ambition to become a security and defence alliance predates the union itself, with some of its members having discussed plans for a European army as early as the 1950s.
Within the last decade, member states’ interest in defence has grown following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the presidency of Donald Trump and the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the bloc in 2016, particularly since it had been one of the strongest opponents of a combined defence project.
The recent events in Afghanistan and the announcement of an Indo-Pacific defence agreement between Britain, America and Australia last month have also exacerbated this sense of insecurity.
As Josep Borrel, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, reported during two informal meetings held in Slovenia throughout the first week of September:
“Regarding European defence, I have the hope that the discussions that we have had during the last couple of years have created enough common understanding of the threats that we are facing, to mobilise the common will of the member states.”
The withdrawal from Afghanistan, together with other major geopolitical events of recent years, has shown in a striking fashion that deficiencies in EU capacity to act autonomously come at a price. The only way forward is to combine EU forces and strengthen not only its capabilities, but also its will to act. This means enhancing the bloc’s ability to respond to hybrid challenges, covering key operational gaps like transportation logistics, raising its level of readiness through joint military training and developing a means of putting boots on the ground.
These proposals have been considered for many years and, so far, divisions among member states have led to insufficient action. Nowadays, however, it seems there is enough common understanding of the challenges and threats that the EU is facing to mobilise the common will of its constituents.
However, these circumstances are not an invitation to withdraw from further international challenges. On the contrary, they should embolden Europe to deepen its alliances and strengthen its determination — and ability — to defend its interests.
The implementation of a European Defence Union
The European Union is currently working on a “European Strategic Compass”, a document that will precisely define its ambitions for security and defence for the next five to 10 years. This Strategic Compass will serve to make a common assessment of the threats the EU faces and a common approach to dealing with them. By embracing the spirit and potential of collaboration, the document — to be issued in spring 2022 — will serve as a guide to Europe’s collective future.
Member states are fully involved in the exercise. Some, for example, have suggested the creation of a European “First Entry Force,” consisting of about 5,000 troops, that could undertake rapid and robust action. Such a body could, for example, have helped the EU to provide a secure perimeter for the evacuation of its citizens in Kabul.
In addition, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will convene a summit on European defence in the near future.
According to Mrs von der Leyen, the European Union is a unique security provider and, though the EU has started to develop a European defence ecosystem over the past few years, what it needs is a European Defence Union.
As for how it should function, she mentioned the importance of focusing on collective decision-making (situational awareness), cyber capabilities (a European cyber defence policy) and interoperability.
The EU is not only investing in its own defence capacities. As we all know, major changes have been in place since the current European Commission took office; central to those changes is its peace-building strategy. As of March 22nd, the EU has equipped itself with a new financial instrument that will cover all of its external actions that have military or defence implications under the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).
This new instrument, called the European Peace Facility, will be able, for the first time, to provide the armed forces of partner countries with infrastructure and equipment, including weapons. This change is meant to help the EU to support military peace-support operations conducted by third countries and regional organisations, anywhere in the world.