EU Collective Defence: What Does France Want?
Analyse Europese Zaken

EU Collective Defence: What Does France Want?

29 Sep 2021 - 08:54
Photo: French aircraft fly over the Champs-Elysees during the annual Bastille Day military parade in Paris, July 14, 2017. © DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique Pineiro
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While France was recently excluded from the ‘Anglo-alliance’ AUKUS, the European Commission announced a Summit on Defence under the guidance of the French presidency of the EU.  What is the French vision on European collective defence?

On 15 September 2021, the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom announced a trilateral security partnership (AUKUS) for the Indo-Pacific region, which triggered a serious strategic crisis between France and its Western allies. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison argued that the aim of this new alliance is “to engage, not to exclude”.1

This looks markedly different from a French perspective, which sees this budding partnership as the latest sign of America’s strategic shift to Asia and its efforts to challenge and check China’s ambitions. By setting up AUKUS, the US establishes a new ‘Anglo-alliance’ that de facto excludes France, the sole EU power of the Indo-Pacific.2

It also entails the scrapping of a 56 billion euro-submarine contract signed between Naval Group, a French company, and the Australian government. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian called the partnership an act of “duplicity” and a “major breach of trust”3, which led France to withdraw its ambassadors to the United States and Australia.

Bouemar-Sailors onboard Type 23 frigate HMS Northumberland watch as the French warship Jean de Vienne approaches during a joint task group in the Mediterranean in 2012. Defence Images - Flickr
British sailors watch as the French warship Jean de Vienne approaches during a joint task group exercise in the Mediterranean in 2012. © Defence Images / Flickr

More than mere frustration over losing a valuable arms deal, however, the strong French reaction reflects its growing impatience towards the United States in the last decade. When President Obama decided to not retaliate against Syria’s Assad regime following the use of chemical weapons in 20134, or when President Trump left the Kurdish fighters at the mercy of Turkish troops in 20195, the French felt similar sentiments of abandonment and betrayal that European NATO allies are now experiencing after the Afghan debacle.

On the very same day of the AUKUS kick-off, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen claimed during the State of the Union that it is now time to create a European Defence Union.6 She also announced a Summit on Defence during the first half of 2022, under the guidance of the French presidency of the EU.7 From a French perspective, this is all good news: assuring European strategic autonomy, and more fundamentally setting up a system for European collective defence, are long-standing ambitions of French President Emmanuel Macron.

France’s armed forces are the most heavily engaged and combat-ready of the entire Union

On top of being the only nuclear power of the EU since Brexit, France’s armed forces are the most heavily engaged and combat-ready of the entire Union. With the return of Great Power politics, this special position grants France a particularly legitimate voice for the defence of Europe. Therefore, it is important to understand what France’s ideas are regarding collective defence and how they fit Europe’s strategic needs.

De Gaulle’s shadow
When French officials talk about European strategic autonomy and political union, or of NATO being ‘brain dead’
8, many Europeans are reminded of Charles de Gaulle’s nationalist policies. Almost by necessity, this generates defiance. Indeed, De Gaulle had two objectives with regards to Europe: to create a community free of any sorts of vassal bounds to the United States, and to shape a platform to boost French influence on the global stage.

But over the past fifty years, much has changed: the position of France as a global player has eroded, and major new steps have been made towards European integration which have radically changed the country’s perception of its own interests. Today, European interests are France’s interests. It would be wrong to say that France has given up on its ambition to assert global influence. But it is safe to claim that France went from seeing Europe as an instrument to gain global influence to an end in itself, thereby largely projecting its nationalist ambitions at the European level.

Bouemar - Arrival of President Emmanuel Macron of France at the Bastille Day parade in 2019. NATO
Arrival of President Emmanuel Macron of France at the Bastille Day parade in 2019. © NATO

President Macron’s vision for Europe clearly reflects this shift. Noting the increasingly competitive geopolitical environment, the French president believes that Europeans must be able to defend themselves independently from any foreign player. Recent events such as Turkey’s use of its NATO membership to suppress resistance to its military adventures9, or President Biden’s efforts to enlist NATO allies in his confrontation with China10, demonstrate that NATO is no longer a strategic safe-haven for Europeans.

NATO and European interests
The case of Turkey illustrates the limits and shortfalls of NATO to deal effectively with European security interests. The erosion of Turkish democracy under President Erdogan, as well as his adversarial foreign policies in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Caucasus, are all cause for serious concern, especially since we are talking about a NATO member state. In August 2020, the long-standing conflict between Turkey and Greece almost escalated, raising the question: how relevant could NATO be in case a member state of both NATO and the EU faces (military) aggression from a NATO ally that is not part of the EU?
11 From a French viewpoint, it has become clear that Turkey’s intentions towards Europe are not friendly, which strengthens the case for setting up a European collective defence system independent from NATO.

Moreover, Donald Trump’s vociferous and scornful manners had the merit of clarifying certain long-standing American positions concerning European Defence. In August 2019, for example, the US Department of Defence sent a threatening letter to the EU in fear that new mechanisms to foster defence investments in Europe would exclude US firms.12

US-French relations have hardly improved under Biden

This move led several French officials and intellectuals to compare US relations with NATO to the situation of the Delian League on the verge of the Peloponnesian War in the 5th century BC. The Trump administration’s understanding that NATO allies should by more US military equipment, recalled Athens’ subordination of its allies by making it obligatory to pay tributes to the hegemonic power (i.e., Athens).

Unfortunately, US-French relations have hardly improved under Biden. Within a year, President Biden crushed the hopes of European leaders that Washington would finally treat them with the respect they deserve. Clearly, wide smiles and friendly handshakes do not make up for the reality that ‘America First’ has obviously become a bipartisan foreign policy consensus in the US.

The difficult rise of a ‘European Europe’
From a legal perspective, Europe’s collective defence now rests on NATO’s Article 5. This article states that in case of an “armed attack”, an ally will assist by taking “such action as it deems necessary”.
13 In practice, this means that Europe’s security remains dependent upon US willingness to mobilise and use its military forces for the defence of Europe.

Furthermore, as the article is not bound geographically, it does not include EU oversees territory and does not cover EU member states that are not part of NATO.14 Most importantly, Article 5 does not include the possible scenario where the aggressor is another NATO member. This is precisely what allows President Erdogan to continuously provoke Greece and push the limits of what is acceptable between allies.

Bouemar - NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meets with the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron in 2017. NATO
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meets with the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron in 2017. ©  NATO

Appreciating the growing mismatch between NATO’s concept of collective defence and European interests is one thing, taking action to develop effective EU defence policies is another. One of the hurdles remains lack of consensus on the finalité strategique of the EU: should the EU remain an ‘Atlantic Europe’ aligned with the US, or should it develop into a ‘European Europe’ as an autonomous strategic actor?15

The EU Global Strategy already introduced the concept of European Strategic Autonomy back in 2016, pointing out the increasing relevance of the ‘European Europe’ vision, which is traditionally pushed by France. Today, the main challenge is transforming this concept from theory into reality and creating an actual structure for Europe’s collective defence.

But the practical hurdles are many: European planning, command and control capabilities are still in the embryonic stage, and largely rely on NATO or national commands. This is especially true for airlift, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Recognition (ISR), Missile Defence, or Cyber Defence capabilities.16 Moreover, after decades of cutting defence budgets, European armed forces are lacking key capabilities to project power and sustain it over time.

One of the most persistent and fundamental obstacles to setting up a European Defence Union remains that lack of ‘political will’

Politically and legally, the EU is well-placed to take the lead in constructing European collective defence. The Lisbon Treaty (signed in 2007) integrated a specific clause on mutual defence: Article 42.7 of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU). This article has the potential to form the legal basis for a solid European structure of collective defence. But the threshold to invoke this article, as well as the procedures that should be followed, remain to be clarified.17

Complementing the Lisbon Treaty, the EU Global Strategy gave rise to the development of an EU-based Military Planning and Conduct Capability. Although still in its infancy, this has been a good start towards building a real ability to conduct the advance strategic and military planning necessary for a collective defence. Initiatives such as the concept of Coordinated Maritime Presence might be another flexible and cost-efficient tool to contribute to a credible European collective defence.18

Strategic culture(s)
One of the most persistent and fundamental obstacles to setting up a European Defence Union remains that lack of ‘political will’. This all boils down to the fact that global events will always be interpreted differently considering the divergent national interests and national security cultures. National idiosyncrasies shape certain visions and different strategic cultures, which in turn influence political preferences and choices. This applies to all states, but perhaps to France in particular.

Bouemar-French helicopters, Gazelle (front) and Tigre (rear), wait for a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter to land at FOB Nejrab, Kapisa province, Afghanistan in 2012. ResoluteSupportMedia
French helicopters wait for a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter to land in Afghanistan, 2012. © ResoluteSupportMedia / Flickr

French military doctrine identifies the variety of strategic cultures in Europe as a significant challenge to building a real European Defence Union. It also acknowledges that creating a common strategic culture is a long-term enterprise that can only be shaped through shared historical experiences. It is the ultimate objective of the (non-EU treaty) European Intervention Initiative (E2I) proposed by President Macron in 2017, and officially launched in June 2018.19

The E2I is an example of the changing French approach to building a credible European defence. In his speech calling a sovereign, united and democratic Europe given at the Sorbonne in 2017, President Macron stated that European defence will not be achieved through some grand designs crafted in Brussels.20 The way forward is to achieve pragmatic projects that directly serve the interest of all Europeans. The EU’s first-ever Strategic Compass for security and defence, which will be ready by March 2022, is said to be the first concrete opportunity to close the gap between “too much rhetoric” and “too little action”.21

The cornerstone of the European project
The French intellectual and political elite is famous for its gift to paint broad and vague vistas on the fate of Europe and France, often based on grand philosophical and theological debates. But even in France, dreams must face reality. Since De Gaulle, French ambitions regarding European collective defence have been checked by the harsh reality of France’s declining position as a Great Power.

Bouemar - French aircraft fly over the Champs-Elysees during the annual Bastille Day military parade in Paris, July 14, 2017. DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique Pineiro
French aircraft fly over the Champs-Elysees during the annual Bastille Day military parade in Paris, July 14, 2017. © DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique Pineiro

As a result, Paris has now embraced the European project as the only realistic and sustainable option to defend its national interests in a world defined by a rapidly changing balance of power that is detrimental to the West.

It is this balance of ambition and pragmatism that makes the French position so relevant today. Even today, amid the AUKUS crisis, President Macron recognises the importance of maintaining a close transatlantic relationship. Despite what is sometimes implied by supporters of an ‘Atlantic Europe’, France does not question the importance of NATO to check Russian aggression. But Paris also calls attention to the fact that today, a NATO-based collective defence does not address all of Europe’s security and defence needs.22

The EU rests on the idea to build a common future for its member states, emphasizing the importance of solidarity during times of crisis and hardship. Why would this not apply to the military defence of its territorial integrity? Over seventy years the idea of European defence has been lying in the shadow of the project of European integration.

It is now time to act, and European collective defence is the first step. If this step is not taken, the EU will become a pawn or even a prey in a geopolitical game where European interests will be ignored at best and violated at worst.

Auteurs

Victor Bouemar
French naval officer