Can France and Germany lead European defence?


Picture of Daniel Keohane
Daniel Keohane

Daniel Keohane is Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zürich

Soon after Britain voted to leave the European Union in June, Ursula von der Leyen, the German Defence Minister, said that Germany and France would lead talks with other EU member states to assess their appetite for closer defence cooperation.

Speaking at the launch of a new German defence white paper, she added that the UK had “paralysed” progress on these issues in the past, but now the rest of the EU should move forward.

Partly based on subsequent practical Franco-German proposals — such as sharing more of the costs of military logistics, medical assistance, and satellite reconnaissance — EU foreign and defence ministers agreed on a new EU security and defence plan in mid-November. EU heads of government should approve this plan at a summit in December.

But while they agree on much on paper, there are some major differences in strategic culture between these two EU heavyweights.

The election of Donald Trump as US president has a greater potential to transform Europe’s strategic landscape

France, which is a nuclear-armed permanent member of the UN Security Council, has a special sense of responsibility for global security. The French Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, proposed in June that the EU should send naval ships to ensure open waterways in the South China Sea. Germany, by contrast, is not yet in the habit of initiating international military operations anywhere, let alone in faraway East Asia.

Berlin is still more reluctant than Paris to deploy robust military force, partly because of cautious public opinion. A series of Koerber Stiftung opinion polls from January 2015 to October 2016 shows an increase in the willingness of Germans to take a more active role in international crisis management (from 34% to 41%), but a majority still prefer restraint.

Germany did beef up its support to the anti-Daesh coalition following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. It will lead one of four NATO battalions soon to be stationed in Eastern Europe. Berlin has also promised to increase its defence spending, and its new white paper says that it wants to boost its military contribution to international security.
But Germany will act only in coalition with others. France, by contrast, is not only prepared to bomb the self-styled ‘Islamic State’, but it will also act unilaterally if needed — consider the robust French military interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic in 2013 and 2014.

Berlin and Paris do not necessarily agree on the end goal of EU defence policy. The new German white paper says that EU members should aim to create a ‘European Security and Defence Union’. Even though von der Leyen has ruled out an EU army for the foreseeable future, some German politicians understand a European defence union to mean the creation of a common army in the long term.

It is not entirely clear who would command such an army — national governments or the Brussels-based EU institutions — nor what it would do in practice. But the idea has a lot of appeal in Germany for a host of historical and political reasons (54% of Germans support the idea according to a Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung poll taken in September). An EU army would be the ultimate expression of European political unity: in other words, EU defence is primarily an integration project for some in Berlin.

The French are more interested in a stronger intergovernmental EU defence policy than a symbolic integration project (albeit one that has its own political value for some in Paris as well as in Berlin). France perceives acting militarily through the EU as an important option for those times when the United States does not want to intervene in crises in and around Europe. This was the main strategic rationale behind the 1998 Franco-British Saint-Malo agreement, which resulted in an EU defence policy — but which has since consistently failed to realise its potential.

While France and Germany agree on much on paper, there are some major differences in strategic culture between these two EU heavyweights

Before Brexit, and despite the ever-intensifying security challenges, EU governments had progressively lost interest in the Union’s defence policy. As a result, the French do not assume that their EU partners will always rush to support their military operations. In general, they haven’t robustly supported France in Africa in recent years, although Germany has enhanced its presence in Mali since the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. But if acting through the EU could help ensure more military support from other EU members, France would find that preferable to acting alone.

In a speech on 6 October French President François Hollande said that there are European countries “that think the United States will always be there to protect them…if they don’t defend themselves they will no longer be defended”. Hollande added “Europeans must realise…they must also be a political power with a defence capability”.

In comparison, the German white paper says that “only together with the United States can Europe effectively defend itself against the threats of the 21st century and guarantee a credible form of deterrence… NATO remains the anchor and main framework of action for German security and defence policy”.

The election of Donald Trump as US president has a greater potential to transform Europe’s strategic landscape than Brexit if he scales back American military commitments in Europe. But unless and until that happens, France and Germany may struggle – despite their sensible joint proposals – to develop a substantially more active EU defence policy, because of their very different strategic cultures.

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