NATO will continue to do the heavy lifting in European defence, despite France and Germany advancing a new policy of boosting European Union defence and security cooperation with the support of several high ranking officials in Brussels, Visiting Scholar at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University Dimitar Bechev said on the sidelines of the yearly Bucharest Forum, a conference organized by Aspen Institute and the German Marshal Fund.
The expert believes that the initiatives comes from an internal crisis of the EU, the Brexit referendum and it is a way of showing to the outside world that the EU still matters.
However, he says, symbolism is what matters for the Europeans right now and they see defence as a low hanging fruit, that can accomplish a lot in terms of external image.
AGERPRES: How do you see the new debate on boosting the EU cooperation on defence and security?
Dimitar Bechev: If you’re talking about the French-German proposal, I think they come from the internal crisis of the EU, the Brexit referendum and it’s a way of showing to the outside world that the EU still matters. Security and defence is a highly visible area, so they can get maximum exposure by targeting that area. The French have been lobbying for a long time for a more robust security and defence policy.
AGERPRES: They also have one of the strongest defence industries…
Bechev: Of course, they are one of the big players in the field. And their consistent policy has been to strengthen the EU defence area. Germany has been the more problematic part of this deal. With Germany it’s symbolism that matters, not the results. It’s different for France, it wants a working policy.
However, I don’t think it’s going to move forward that easily, because there is a lot of fraction in Europe and NATO is doing the heavy lifting. NATO has been revitalized after the annexation of Crimea and the Warsaw Summit.
But anyway, even if nothing really happens on a short term, getting Germany onboard in advancing a more robust defence policy is a step forward.
AGERPRES: We’ve seen a lot of support for the idea, though…
Bechev: I think Europe can pick up the slack and have a contribution. But I don’t think there will be a big leap forward in the immediate future.
AGERPRES: The idea was also advanced by the head of the European Commission. Juncker spoke about a military capacity development fund member countries can access.
Bechev: Maybe this could happen at a different moment. Budgets armies in Western Europe are being cut. If you look at all the data, not many countries have met the 2 percent target. You can talk about defence, you can try to streamline policies and create new initiatives, but it’s a long process and there haven’t been many deployments in the past. The EU is not doing much beyond the operations in the Mediterranean. The real fighting is done by somebody else. France is intervening in Mali, on its own. It would take some time before Europe has the capabilities to make a difference on sites. Before anything, the economics, the military expense is not right, so it’s difficult to envision anything concrete. But the symbolism matters for the Europeans right now. They see defence as a low hanging fruit, that can accomplish a lot in terms of external image.
AGERPRES: How would Europe deal with an unfulfilled promise later?
Bechev: I don’t think the costs would be that high because the story of the European defence has been there since the 1990s. It’s a stopgap process. I don’t think expectations are so high.
AGERPRES: Many countries, especially in the Eastern flank, might be disappointed, because all this rhetoric has been creating expectations. And they feel threatened by Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Bechev: Their institution of choice is NATO and it’s the buildup of NATO’s presence that matters. If the EU can do some extra bits, the better. I don’t think many people are putting their chips on the EU as opposed to NATO. It’s the US administration, the question of what happens after the elections, if the new president would be Donald Trump. I think these are important questions and they discussed them in Bratislava. The proposal of the French and the Germans is, I think, a side show. If anything moves forward it has to go through the Weimar triangle, Poland needs to have a say, and right now I’m not sure what their position is. They’ve been absent. It cannot be only a French German initiative.
Secondly, there is a big question about the UK. They’re against it, and even after Brexit, the EU has to have a connection with the UK so part of the future arrangement with the Brits will have a defence cooperation side.
So there are lots of moving parts. It’s very early to say anything conclusive. Even the French and the Germans have their own different perceptions. The French are more pragmatic and the Germans are more idealistic about the symbolism.
AGERPRES: What about in terms of soft power, how can the EU engage Russia? There is a line of countries between the EU and Russia that would like the EU to be more involved and more efficient.
Bechev: That’s because the EU and Russia operate with different sets of instruments. EU cannot project military force, whereas Russia can. The EU doesn’t have a media arm the way Russia has. Russia sometimes wants to imitate the EU and develops similar tools and set up an Economic Union. It’s all basic. This is not an equal competition because we’re talking about two very different actors.
I think the result is a stalemate. Russia cannot push militarily very much further into Ukraine because of the costs of such a move, and at the same time the EU cannot respond with military force, but has the sanctions. They won’t be very effective at first, but later, in combination with falling oil prices they will have a bite. More…