European Defense: How Russia's War Changed Everything And Nothing
The EU and NATO have vowed to expand cooperation, which may mean a major long-term shift in European defense strategy. Still, the French know that the reality on the ground means that European defense effectively still means NATO.
PARIS — It's undoubtedly one of the great paradoxes of Vladimir Putin's war: It triggered a rapprochement between the European Union and NATO — the exact opposite of what the Russian president hoped. Yet for the EU's leading military, France, this has not exactly been the dream scenario.
Even though NATO and the EU's headquarters are only a few kilometers apart, their leaders have long kept their distance from each other.
On Tuesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, the European Commission's and European Council's top representatives, finally met and signed a declaration that promised “a higher level” of collaboration between both institutions.
It may seem trivial, but there is nothing obvious about this newly formed alliance. For most of its existence, the European Union has mostly been keeping at bay from defense issues.
Some of the bloc's members stay neutral, while others belong to NATO. France has remained outside the military structures of NATO, while being a member of the alliance ... As a result, in such a complex situation, it has been preferable for the EU to leave defense issues aside and focus on economic integration.
European strategic autonomy
The current situation in Ukraine isn't the only factor to explain the state of things. European countries had started to change long before Vladimir Putin’s war, a move driven by France: The year he was elected, in 2017, Emmanuel Macron had pleaded for “European strategic autonomy”.
Moving forward with that took some time, for sure, but Ursula von der Leyen had described the European Commission — over which she presides — as “geopolitical”. Three years before the Ukraine war, such a declaration was well-regarded. And the European Union had taken timid first steps towards that goal, such as inaugurating a budget line devoted to joint armament programs.
Is there still a place for European strategic autonomy?
When the war started, the bloc made an unprecedented gesture, jointly financing the weapons that were going to be delivered to Ukraine. This was a small cultural revolution for European countries. But let’s also remember that most of the military aid was coordinated on a bilateral basis, coordinated by NATO, and supervised by the Americans.
Charles Michel, Jens Stoltenberg and Ursula von der Leyen at the signing ceremony of the Joint Declaration on EU-NATO Cooperation
NATO is European defense
Is there still a place for European strategic autonomy? That’s today’s major issue. With the war in Ukraine, and the major part that has been played by the U.S., NATO appears today as the only solid alternative on the European continent.
Meanwhile, the countries on the “eastern front”, such as the Baltic states or Poland, are worried about a war that might show at their doorstep, led by a country that they know well — Russia. They are waiting for NATO’s, and particularly Washington’s, protection. Two neutral countries, Finland and Sweden, even decided to join NATO in turn, leaving only four neutral countries (Austria, Cyprus, Ireland and Malta) within the European bloc.
France, on the other hand, is realistic, and has understood very well that the brutality of war makes the question of “autonomy” unrealistic. Paris plays its part within NATO, especially through a military presence in Romania and in the Baltics.
Still today, it is NATO that represents European defense. Denying this, as long as European borders are threatened, would be delusional. This is what the treaty that was signed yesterday in Brussels really means.
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