Europe's military weakness is indefensible!

By Guy Verhofstadt, fist published by EUobserver, 06 October 2021

BRUSSELS - Am I the only one who is sick and tired of hearing AUKUS described as a 'wake up call' for European defence?

Just a few weeks ago Afghanistan was a 'wake-up call' for Europe. And before that there was Belarus, and Ukraine, and Syria… and yet every time - every single time! - we all hit the snooze button and hope the world will just let us sleep.

It won't. Tensions are rising all around the globe, so our divisions will only continue to make us weaker. Our partners ignore us. Our enemies mistreat us.

Our citizens despair of a political project that promises the world but can't even deal with its most elementary physical threats. Europe's refusal to get serious about defence is geopolitically untenable and politically indefensible.

Necessary steps

What Afghanistan should teach us is that the debate around a European army has to rise above the clichés and myths: armies don't just wage wars, but protect our citizens and allies, interests and ideals abroad.

An EU army is not some ultra-federalist fantasy but a common-sense answer to the real-world challenges we face as European countries. Not a leap into the unknown but a number of concrete steps we know we need to take to defend our sovereignty and protect ourselves.

Because what have our militaries faced in recent years?

First, remember Libya, now 10 years ago, where EU members France and the UK took the lead in an intervention against dictator Muammar Gaddafi and the threat he posed so close to EU territory. Though European planes did most of the air strikes it immediately became clear they lacked the capabilities to coordinate and continue the whole operation, and so dragged a reluctant US into a leading role.

The American assessment afterwards was crushing. In the words of secretary of state Robert Gates, there was a "real possibility for a dim, if not dismal, future for the transatlantic alliance." We were warned.

One major weakness was intelligence, and 10 years on we haven't made real progress. We still need to beef up our intelligence capacities and find a shared reading of threats and scenarios.

Or as European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called it in her state-of-the-union speech: the EU needs its own Joint Situational Awareness Centre. Except don't "consider" it, as she asked, but just do it!

Next, think of all the new-threats we face with increasing regularity. Five years ago, Russian interference in the Brexit referendum and the US elections showed that cyber security is of systemic as well as economic importance, not just an individual's or businesses' concern, but an existential one.

The EU and its member states are prime targets. But five years on, as the German election worries showed, we are not much better prepared or united than before.

The EU needs to do more to counter threats together and we need to do it specifically with European situations and interests in mind - this in line with article 222 of the Lisbon Treaty, enshrining a legal obligation to solidarity.

Then, we need to improve the link between operational level and political, diplomatic actions.

We already have the Eurocorps, an embryonic operational force of EU soldiers in a Nato context. It is still limited - 1,000 soldiers from five Western European countries plus some associates, now focused on training missions in Africa - but could well form the basis for EU boots on the ground when and where most needed. We need to expand Eurocorps to all EU members, and integrate it into EU political framework.

Finally, progress towards an EU army is the only way to reignite Nato as a genuine partnership and reform it into an international peace and security organisation.

We have long gone beyond the 'transatlantic' - as AUKUS shows more than ever - and must find an updated 21st-century form for its original purpose.

Nato only has a future if based on continental and regional blocs, tied together around a shared commitment and responsibilities.

Last change

Weakness has become a European habit, and a dangerous one. When Estonia suffers from cyberattacks, Lithuania from Chinese economic coercion, or France from our partners' fickleness, it's really Europe's stability and sovereignty that is at risk.

The recent statement by French president Emmanuel Macron and US president Joe Biden makes clear in positive language what Robert Gates said in the negative: the US "recognises the importance of a stronger and more capable European defence, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to Nato."

For now, the AUKUS incident is both an invitation and a threat: Take EU defence seriously, or slip further into irrelevance and away from US protection.

That should keep us awake this time!


Guy Verhofstadt is Renew Europe MEP and former prime minister of Belgium.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver or CEMAS.