While Europe’s citizens largely support the establishment of a common security and defense policy, most European leaders have demonstrated a clear lack of interest in creating one — including at last month’s European Council meeting. What accounts for this paradox?
One possible explanation is that financially strained European governments lack the means to fulfill their citizens’ expectations. But that is unconvincing, given that the issue was framed in almost identical terms three decades ago, when budgetary constraints were not a problem. In fact, it could be argued that such constraints should spur, not impede, the creation of a European defense structure. After all, member countries would then be able to pool their resources, harmonize programs, and rationalize costs, thereby reducing individual governments’ financial burden.
Another, far more credible explanation is that Europeans’ interpretations of “a more active and stronger security policy” differ widely. Indeed, current discussions in Europe concerning the use of force are dominated by three main perspectives, championed by France, the United Kingdom and Germany.
France, which has once again intervened in Africa — this time to restore order in the Central African Republic — is the only European Union country that seems genuinely interested in satisfying popular demand for more robust European security structures. The French consider Europe to be a kind of superpower — a status that implies a corresponding military capacity.
While this view probably stems from France’s historical political and military prowess, it also reflects the country’s current interests. As Europe’s greatest military power (despite the U.K.’s larger defense budget), France would play a key role in any wide-ranging European military operation.
The U.K., for its part, shares France’s belief that military power is a prerequisite to strategic effectiveness. It claims that its opposition to a European defense structure stems from its belief that NATO — and thus the United States — is critical to European defense. But, given that no other EU country has seriously considered excluding NATO, this argument seems to be little more than an excuse.
The truth is that the only kind of defense the British accept is that conducted by a coalition of European states acting under their national flags, as occurred in Libya. In the U.K.’s view, “European” operations should be limited to humanitarian and peacekeeping objectives. While it supported the fight against piracy off the Horn of Africa, that was more a policing operation than a military one, and it was guided by a shared interest in protecting trade routes from the Middle East and Asia.
Germany’s vision of European defense is very different from the French and British perspectives. Unlike the U.K., Germany supports a European security and defense policy, proudly highlighting its consistent military budget and major presence in European missions (larger than that of the overstretched French). And, though Germany shares the U.K.’s belief that NATO bears primary responsibility for protecting Europe, its view of European engagement is even more restrictive. In Germany’s view, European military intervention should be limited to the continent, and should not include combat operations.
In fact, a majority of Europe’s citizens prefer that European forces be deployed only for noncombat missions.
And so far, virtually all European military operations have been aimed at evacuating European nationals, delivering humanitarian aid, or maintaining peace in the aftermath of conflict.
These differing views explain the uncertainty surrounding France’s recent interventions in Africa. The French have lamented the miniscule support offered by the rest of Europe for its operations in Mali and the Central African Republic — exemplified by Germany’s refusal to create a fund for EU member-state operations.
But, given the urgency of the situations in Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic, this lack of support has not undermined France’s efforts as much as prior consultation with European leaders would have done. Had the Germans been consulted, they probably would have rejected the interventions anyway.
This conflict between the need for rapid response and the requirement for deliberation explains why the EU’s much-discussed “battlegroups” are unlikely ever to be deployed. The fact that most Europeans are satisfied with limited political and military involvement outside of Europe makes increased defense cooperation even less likely.
A pessimist would say that Europeans are unable — or at least unwilling — to rethink their defense policy, because the U.S. ultimately ensures their security through NATO. According to this view, France’s efforts to encourage both trans-Atlantic integration and autonomous political action are insufficient to change most Europeans’ minds.
A more optimistic interpretation is that Europe needs defense structures that account for the role of member states — not just for that of the EU. From this perspective, Europe does have a significant military presence, whether in Afghanistan and Libya or Mali and the Central African Republic. That is a start.
Zaki Laidi is a professor of International Relations at L’Institut d’etudes politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), and the author of Limited Achievements: Obama’s Foreign Policy. © 2014 Project Syndicate.