Two days before NATO celebrated its seventieth anniversary in Watford, close to London on December 3–4, Ursula Von Der Leyen started her 5 years as president of the European Commission. She had announced that her Commission would be ‘geopolitical’, and appointed a commissioner, the French Thierry Breton, to deal with ‘Defense Industry and Space’, among other responsibilities.

A month before the NATO summit, France’s president Emmanuel Macron, in a now-famous interview with the Economist, had declared NATO ‘brain dead’, a provocative diagnosis which sent huge shockwaves across the Atlantic as well as inside the EU. The London summit, fortunately, ended in a spirit of compromise, no member state, even Turkey, wanting to leave the impression of a failure – which would have rejoiced the ‘enemies’.

The conclusions announce the setting up of ‘a forward-looking reflection process’ on the future of the Alliance. They also, for the first time in a NATO document, mention China, whose ‘growing influence’ offers ‘opportunities’ but also ‘challenges’.

This post identifies and explains the evolution in the European vision of the security challenges for the continent as well as the tools the Union is developing to reinforce its ‘strategic autonomy’.

NATO, alive and well, thirty years after the end of the cold war

Even if the end of NATO has been predicted several times since the end of the cold war, the Alliance is still there and has demonstrated that it is flexible enough to adapt to an evolving political context.

Its strategic purpose and its tasks have indeed evolved in the thirty years after the end of the cold war, as well as its relationship with the EU, which experts on both sides consider better than it has ever been. President Trump ‘s approach to it centres on the financial contributions of each country to defense: he can claim some success in this field: overall growth of defense budgets of Alliance members will increase by 130 billion $ in 2020.

The Alliance is thus certainly not ‘brain dead’, as Macron said to the Economist.   The French president wanted to address the Turkish operation in Syria, which was launched with no NATO consultation. He also wanted to criticize the transactional approach of the Alliance by president Trump and his open hostility towards the European Union.

But more importantly, by being provocative, Macron also intended to question the strategic purpose of the Alliance, still mainly focussed on Russia at a time when the most important perceived threat in Europe is terrorism, and when the first national security priority for the US (but also more and more for the EU) is China. 

The Collision with Russia

The relationship with Russia did not really dominate the agenda of the Alliance during the nineties. But the fact that NATO enlarged to a number of countries from the ex- Soviet empire collided with the revival of Russia under Putin, who wanted instead to re-establish as much as possible of the destroyed Soviet Empire.

Conflicts developed all along the grey zone between Russia and the West, with the most acute in Ukraine. This brought NATO back to its original mission of containing Russia, applauded by the new NATO (and EU) members in Eastern Europe, who still consider Russia the most important threat.

As a consequence, NATO recently focused its means and energy on territorial defense, deploying combat-ready troops in its Eastern Members. This presence has never been as strong as it is now since the end of the cold war – and it is also much closer to Moscow than it was at the time.

But all Europeans do not see the relationship with Russia in the same way. Regularly, countries like France or Italy try to re-engage with Putin, conscious that Russia will always be a close neighbour, that it plays a major role on the world scene, notably in the Middle East, but also that its relative economic weakness creates the space for cooperation more than confrontation. In his interview with the Economist, Macron pleads strongly in that sense: ‘If we want to build peace in Europe, to rebuild European strategic autonomy, we need to reconsider our position with Russia’.

 Pivot to China?

In their conclusions on December 4, and for the first time in NATO’s history, the leaders of the Alliance recognised that ‘China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance’. ‘This is not about moving NATO into the South China Sea, but it’s about taking into account that China is coming closer to us — in the Arctic, in Africa, investing heavily in our infrastructure in Europe, in cyberspace’, said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg before the meeting.

The fact that China has developed new armaments, including long-range missiles capable of reaching Europe and the United States has also brought the allies to consider including China in new arms control negotiations after the collapse of the INF treaty.

The increasing place of China in the world economy and its growing influence in international relations has obviously influenced the way Europeans look at their security and at their own role in the world.  They also notice that competition with China is now the top national security priority for the United States. As Macron said in the Economist interview, ‘the U.S. has changed its strategy by looking more at the Pacific region rather than the Atlantic and the emergence of China clearly marginalizes Europe’.

The European Union continues to engage positively with China and does not hesitate to side with it against Washington on trade issues, for the implementation of the JCPOA  with Iran or in climate change negotiations. But recently, and for the first time, it has declared China an ‘economic competitor’ and a ’systemic rival’. Its member states have also quietly developed defensive tools, notably with regard to Chinese investments or its cyber activity. Europe clearly wants to remain an actor , not a passive observer of a US – China ‘cold war’. 

‘A Europe that Protects’

Terrorism from the Islamic state, migration from crisis areas in the Middle East and the overall problem of illegal migration encouraged EU leaders to present the enhancement of the protection of their citizens as one of the main priorities of the Union for the future. ‘A Europe that protects’ was the major slogan at the first European Council which discussed the future of Europe after the Brexit referendum of 2016.

The perspective of Brexit, paradoxically, has subtly changed, in a positive way,  the British attitude towards European defense. Clear signals have been sent that, post-Brexit, the UK wants to  remain closely linked to the Union in the defense field.

In June 2016, a few days after the Brexit referendum, the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, Federica Mogherini, presented an ‘EU Global Strategy’, a sort of new strategic concept for European Security and Defense, in which she tried, very carefully, to identify and differentiate the various threats to the Union, in order to define the military tasks the Common Security and Defense policy of the EU should plan in the current geopolitical context.

This exercise is important because, indeed, a fundamental obstacle to the development of an autonomous European defense is and will remain for a certain time the fact that EU countries continue to have conflicting strategic priorities, for various historical and geographical reasons.

Another initiative has also been taken recently to stimulate co-operation among member states in the defense field: the ‘Permanent Structured Cooperation’ (PESCO), a tool included in the Lisbon treaty but left dormant. PESCO commits its members to jointly plan, develop and invest in shared capability projects and develop a coherent full spectrum force package. 

The ‘Defense Industry and Space’ portfolio in the European Commission

In November 2016, a few months after the presentation of the ‘Global Strategy’, president of the EU Commission Jean Claude Juncker issued a proposal for the setting up of a ‘European Defense Fund’, which would support investment in joint research and development of defense equipment and technologies. The fund would be integrated in the EU budget and managed by the EU Commission (See our blog: ‘Towards a European army’, February 2019).

This institutional innovation was quietly put in place ignoring the old Maastricht separation between the ‘community’ and the intergovernmental pillars of the EU. But nobody objected for two reasons: the need for the EU to protect its citizens; and also the urgent need for Europe to redefine its place in a changing world, which requires the involvement of all its institutions.

This does not mean that the EU Commission will deal with defense policy as such, for which it is clearly not competent. Its role is limited to the ‘Defense industry’. To create the European Defense Fund, Juncker used, as legal basis in the EU treaty,  provisions that give it the right to take ‘any useful initiative’ to promote co-ordination between member states in order to promote the Union’s industrial competitiveness.

In the new Commission, this responsibility was given to the French commissioner Thierry Breton, in charge also of the internal market and the digital single market. A new directorate general will be added in the Commission to deal exclusively with ‘Defense Industry and Space’, covering the European Defense Fund, military mobility and the EU’s space programs (Galileo, EGNOS and Copernicus).

Breton seems to have the capacity to engage in these diverse activities. He is at the same time a politician and a businessman. He was minister in the last Chirac government and later, and until now, the chairman of the most successful technology company in France, Atos.

Von Der Leyen, in her mission letter to him wants him to ‘focus on building an open and competitive European defence equipment market’, enforcing EU procurement rules on defence’ and lead on the implementation of the Action Plan on Military Mobility, in close cooperation with the Commissioner for Transport’.

The creation of the European Defense Fund was tentatively approved by the Council and the European Parliament at the beginning of 2019 after difficult debates, but its budget and funding eligibility could not be agreed. Its success indeed will depend on the outcome of the difficult debate on the so called ‘Multi-annual Financial Framework’, the framework in which the EU budget will be constrained for the period 2021 – 2027, which should be decided next year.

The political will is there to give it a substantial dimension, but its amount will depend on the overall ceiling which will be decided and its share among the other priorities of the Union. The Commission proposed a budget of €13 billion for 2021-2027, €4.1 billion to directly finance competitive and collaborative research projects, in particular through grants and €8.9 billion to complement Member States’ investment by co-financing the costs for prototype development, the ensuing certification and testing requirements.

With regard to the Space industry, Von Der Leyen instructs Breton to ‘foster a strong and innovative space industry, maintaining the EU’s autonomous, reliable and cost-effective access to space’. This includes the future Space Programme, covering Galileo and EGNOS, the EU’s global and regional satellite navigation systems and Copernicus, the EU’s Earth observation programme.

Copernicus, which was created in 2014 with the European Space Agency (ESA) should be used to reach EUs climate objectives, by monitoring CO2 emissions. Galileo could help improving the crucial link between space and defence and security: Breton is asked to ‘support the Member States in increasing the uptake of the Galileo Public Regulated Service, which can be used by governments for emergency services, peacekeeping operations and crisis management’.

The ‘Geopolitical ‘Dimension

The wish of its president to make it ‘geopolitical’ is a clear indication that the new European Commission will be more assertive than the previous one in dealing with the global challenges of today. Europe no longer wants to be ‘just the continent of consumption’. Ursula Von Der Leyen, a former Defense minister, intends to play her own role in this field. She visited both the Climate conference in Madrid and the African Union seat in Addis Ababa during her first week in office.

High Representative Josep Borrell and several other commissioners will deal with external relations: the Greek Schinas will deal with the migration policy; the Finnish Urpilainen with International Development policy; the Hungarian  Várhelyi receives the politically-sensitive enlargement and neighbourhood policy; The Irish Hogan will be in charge of  trade policy; the Slovenian Janez Lenarčič has been designated Commissioner for ‘Crisis Management’.

If the Union wants to enhance its global role, the major challenge will obviously be to restore a unity of vision among its members at a time when populist and illiberal forces open divisions among the EU members North and South, East and West. The negotiation on the new multi-annual financial framework will also be divisive. And, if the 27 have managed until now to remain united for the negotiation of the withdrawal treaty, it will be more difficult to keep this unity when the future relationship with the UK after Brexit will need to be decided.

As for NATO, I will quote an ex-British ambassador, Peter Ricketts, in an opinion published in the FT after this month summit: ‘the most fundamental question of all is whether a military alliance can survive without a single overarching threat to bind members together’.  The question is yes, he adds, ‘provided it is also a functioning alliance’. To judge by the atmosphere and the rows which surrounded the Watford meeting, this is, unfortunately, not certain.