France’s Call for Stronger Europe Finally Gains Traction

PARIS — For years, French President Emmanuel Macron has argued for a stronger, more independent European defense. “What Europe, Defense Europe, lacks most today is a common strategic culture,” he said in a 2017 speech at Sorbonne University in Paris.

His address, just months after taking office, called for such unity in countering a raft of threats, including climate change. “Our inability to work together convincingly undermines our credibility as Europeans,” Macron said.

Today, it seems, other European Union countries are finally listening. Not necessarily because of Macron, but because of events taking place far from the French capital: a menacing Russia and struggling Kyiv as the war in Ukraine heads into its third year; and fears of waning U.S. support for both the conflict and the Atlantic alliance, especially if former president Donald Trump returns to power.

“The Europeans will have to get their act together on defense no matter what — and that requires a sustained effort for five, 10 years,” says Camille Grand, who leads defense issues at the European Council on Foreign Relations policy institute. While some European Union members had already begun moving in that direction, he said, “it took the full-scale invasion of Ukraine to get that massive shift.”

Recent weeks have seen Europe’s defense take center stage in meetings and commitments. At the Munich Security Conference that wrapped up Sunday, Denmark announced it would send its entire ammunition stock to Ukraine, calling on other European countries to also step up. During back-to-back visits to Berlin and Paris, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy secured fresh security pacts from both countries and billions of dollars more in aid.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has called for the European Union to become a military power in its own right, while the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia agreed last month to set up a common defense zone on their borders with Russia and Belarus. Last week, too, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced that Europe, for the first time, had collectively met the alliance’s 2% GDP target for defense spending.

But whether Europe’s wakeup call will translate into a common defense strategy remains uncertain, observers say, as doing so would entail moving beyond the EU’s traditional glue of France and Germany to include central and eastern member states — and working together in new ways.

“All we’ve been able to construct since the beginning of this century were specific cooperations to manage peripheral crises — in the Middle East, Africa or the Balkans,” said Dominique David, defense specialist at the French Institute of International Relations. “Not to make war or defend against a threat on our territory.”

Others warn against going it alone.

“We should not pursue any path that indicates that we are trying to divide Europe from North America,” the alliance’s Stoltenberg said.

Challenges ahead

While their aims may differ, the wave of recent European defense commitments reflects an old French argument.

“The idea that the Europeans, even within NATO, should represent a more autonomous and independent force vis-a-vis the United States was always a French idea,” analyst David said — one also taken up by Macron’s predecessors.

“The other Europeans thought the real security guarantee came from the United States,” he added, “and constructing a more-or-less autonomous European defense would weaken the American guarantee.”

Those beliefs are crumbling as a $60 billion aid package for Ukraine gathers dust in Congress — and after former President Donald Trump’s suggestion he may not protect a NATO member “delinquent” on its military spending, and instead encourage Russia to attack if back in office.

“The French, like other Europeans, are faced with a situation in which Ukraine has become their exclusive responsibility, a situation which nobody was expecting,” said French defense analyst Francois Heisbourg.

“We’re not in a point-scoring situation anymore,” he added, referring to earlier debates over how autonomous Europe’s defense should be. “We are now in a more existential world.”

What’s clear, analysts say, is Europe has serious catchup to do, after years of spending little on defense. Some fear it may be just a few years before Russia sets it sights beyond Ukraine. While the bloc has earmarked billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine, including $54 billion earlier this month, it is lagging behind in other areas. The EU has moved a March deadline to deliver a million artillery shells to Ukraine, for example, to year’s end.

“It’s astonishing that the European abilities to supply Ukraine are not either physically strong enough or don’t exist,” said Judy Dempsey, a defense specialist at Carnegie Europe policy institute. “This is the tragedy of the post-Cold war era; that the defense structures were downsized.”

France, too, hasn’t always walked its security talk. It ranks 14th, behind Germany and the Netherlands, in terms of defense commitments to Ukraine, according to Germany’s Kiel Institute research group, although French government figures are higher. It’s fallen just shy of NATO’s 2% spending target in recent years — compared to Poland’s nearly 4% last year — although French authorities say that spending goal will be met this year and rise after that.

“The Poles, the Balts and the Nordics have been investing more rapidly and more significantly in defense than many of Europe’s more western and southern countries,” said analyst Grand. “They have become high-profile defense players,” which traditional EU heavyweights France and Germany “need to account for.”

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, who hopes to win another term this year, has called for creating a new post of EU defense commissioner. Some suggest the job should go to an eastern European country like Poland, with a focused understanding of Russia’s threat.

The bigger goal of forging a common European defense strategy and bloc within NATO will be a key challenge, some say.

“I would say the answer is no,” said analyst David, referring to the prospect of that happening anytime soon. “We’re many, we’re divided, we’re in a situation that’s very complicated — we don’t know how to emerge from the war in Ukraine.”

What Europe can do now, he said, “is open these discussions, and hope to progress fairly quickly.”

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