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France and Germany at the helm of European strategic autonomy

Image credit: Emmanuel Macron (Creative Commons: Facebook)

US President Donald Trump’s criticism of European NATO members not sharing the burden of the organisation’s costs has not been unduly brushed aside in Europe. Accordingly, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have reached a common conclusion: Europe must become more strategically autonomous in defence.

Yet seeing this as reactive to Trump’s rhetoric would be ignoring the bigger picture. In 2016, the EU adopted a new Global Strategy calling for more autonomy in defence to face Europe’s increasingly uncertain security landscape due to Russian hostility in the east, Brexit, and conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East.

What does strategic autonomy in Europe entail, and how are France and Germany driving it? At its core, strategic autonomy relates to Europe as a unitary actor, capable of defending European territory and domestic interests, and pursuing its objectives abroad. Germany and France play key roles in three levels of the strategy.

The first is political autonomy: the capacity to direct security policy and act on it. The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) launched in November 2017 aims to integrate defence cooperation between 25 of the EU’s 28 members to close the capability gap between American and European forces, such as in intelligence and surveillance capabilities.

While France and Germany initiated PESCO, their different strategic cultures have caused problems when developing PESCO’s organisational structure and projects. The French pushed for high standards of entry into PESCO, focusing largely on defence capabilities and operational commitments to maximise the potential ambition and efficiency of likely projects, such as establishing a Crisis Response Operational Corps. Meanwhile, the Germans lobbied for PESCO to be more inclusive to avoid division in the EU and to focus on training and civilian missions. A compromise was reached making PESCO membership voluntary and based on pledges of members to meet ambitious goals.

Macron’s European Intervention Initiative (EI2) established in June 2017 further pronounces the discord in strategic cultures. An operations-oriented initiative outside EU and NATO structures, its ten members (including Germany, but also notably non-PESCO members Britain and Denmark) are members by invitation based on military capabilities. EI2 aims to create a “common strategic culture” and a framework for future joint missions. This opposes PESCO’s inclusive framework, highlighting the work still needed from France and Germany to clearly define each initiative's role in the EU’s Global Strategy to ensure domestic security within the Union and a multilateral rules-based international order.

The second level is operational autonomy: having institutional frameworks backed up by the necessary capabilities to plan and conduct civilian and military operations. The European Defence Fund (EDF) created in June 2017 is funding joint European defence research and development and acquisition. Investing a total of €590 million (approximately AUD$936 million) until 2019, this will expand to €13 billion (just over AUD$ 20.6 billion) in the period 2021-2027. European defence projects are currently run on a country-by-country basis, resulting in the production of competing and incompatible military technologies. The EDF aims to encourage the streamlining and homogenisation of European defence research and development, facilitating the reduction of dependence on procurement from the US.

This links to the third level - industrial autonomy - the capacity to develop and build the capabilities which make operational autonomy possible. German-Franco economic cooperation is leading efforts to achieve the goals set out by the EDF. In 2017 Macron and Merkel announced a joint venture to develop a next-generation fighter jet, and in June 2018 announced joint development of a new battle tank starting in 2019. Post-Brexit, France and Germany will make up approximately 50 per cent of the EU’s military and industrial capabilities; where and how they invest in research and development matters highly for Europe’s strategic autonomy. Yet there are signs of tensions, with the two countries disagreeing on export arrangements for products from joint projects.

With the Franco-German relationship driving the policymaking and capability-production processes of European strategic autonomy, there are two things both countries must do to ensure the strategy’s future success.

First, there is no present agreement about what strategic autonomy should look like. France and Germany must reconcile their strategic cultures to reach a common political understanding of what strategic autonomy is, which would then encourage other EU countries to join initiatives and to effectively pool their military and economic resources, especially in defence industry.

Second, strategic autonomy is in its infancy. PESCO and EI2 should be seen to complement NATO, not replace it. One estimate sees European allies relying on NATO for over one third of its military capabilities in 2049 simply meeting current NATO demands. Given strategic autonomy’s long-term nature, political investment from future French and German governments is crucial for the development and survival of the strategy.

There are both present and future challenges to be faced. Ongoing protests from the gilets jaunes have forced Macron to turn his attention and budget towards domestic concerns, which could put European joint defence initiatives at risk. In the long run, Merkel’s retirement from politics in 2021 could see her successor as CDU party leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, forge different policies to Merkel in areas such as EU defence cooperation considering the ground gained by anti-EU integrationist parties like the Alternative für Deutschland in the last German elections, which have fractured the German political landscape.

Philip Taleski is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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