ALPHABET SOUP was not on the menu when EU defence ministers met in Bucharest on January 30th. But it was on the agenda. As Europeans scramble to reduce their military dependence on America, they are making acronyms great again. Embryonic schemes include PESCO (Permanent Structured Co-operation), EDF (a European Defence Fund) and E2I (a European Intervention Initiative). Alas, Europeans still seem better at producing bureaucracy than battalions.
Ambition is not lacking. Last year Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel caused a ruckus when they endorsed a “European army”, to the horror of British Eurosceptics and American Atlanticists. On January 10th Ursula von der Leyen, the German defence minister, went one better. “Europe’s army”, she declared, “is already taking shape.” On January 22nd the Aachen treaty between France and Germany promised to develop the “efficiency, coherence and credibility of Europe in the military field”.
Nor is money the problem. European members of NATO have added more than $50bn to their collective annual expenditure since 2015, the year after Russia invaded Ukraine. That is equivalent to tacking on a military power the size of Britain or France. Donald Trump ought to take note.
What Europeans cannot agree on is precisely how these swelling capabilities should be joined up and used. Duelling visions of Europe’s military future have given rise to a proliferation of schemes. Seasoned diplomats with decades of experience in European defence policy admit that even they are occasionally baffled.
Start with PESCO, a collection of 34 EU defence projects launched with great fanfare in December 2017. Its members agreed “to do things together, spend together, invest together, buy together, act together”, as Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign-policy chief, put it. The plan would be lubricated with cash from the European Commission. But where Germany saw PESCO as an opportunity to put wind back into the sails of the European project, France was irked that inclusivity had trumped ambition.
And so, even as PESCO was being finalised, in a two-hour address at the Sorbonne in September 2017, Mr Macron demanded something meatier: a “common intervention force, a common defence budget and a common doctrine for action”. Nine states signed up to the resulting E2I in June 2018. Notably, it stood independent of the EU and so welcomed Denmark, which opts out of the EU’s common security and defence policy, and Britain, leaving completely.
Germany, quietly seething, saw the effort as a half-baked French attempt to drag others into its African wars while diluting the EU’s role. It signed up anyway, wary of upsetting a wobbly Franco-German axis any further. “Germans couldn’t say no,” says Claudia Major of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, “but they hated it.” Italy, the EU’s third military power, was less emollient. Its newly elected populist government simply refused to join at all.
In truth, both schemes have been misunderstood. PESCO is not a standing army or alliance. It is a way to reduce duplication, join up national defence industries and set standards for everything from battlefield medicine to military radios. Nor is E2I a roving strike force, as its grandiose name suggests, but a framework for Europe’s ambitious armed forces (its members account for four-fifths of EU military spending) to act together in future crises. Its members discuss scenarios from the Caribbean to the Baltic, rather than just France’s African stomping grounds.
In theory, PESCO and E2I can not only support one another but also plug into NATO. In practice, things may be more complicated. Ms Major warns that smaller states, like the Baltics, will be spread thin. She suggests that some may favour France’s glitzier initiative out of the Elysée Palace over its dowdier EU cousin.
The bigger problem is the gap between the lofty rhetoric of political leaders and the essential modesty of these defence drives. The EU has always accepted that it should focus on crisis management (fighting the likes of pirates and traffickers) rather than collective defence (fighting Russians). For all the big talk, that remains so.
Not that Europeans are sitting on their guns. European forces are involved in everything from anti-piracy patrols off Somalia to training for soldiers in the Central African Republic. The EU’s mission in Mali involves over 620 people from 22 countries; it has trained nearly 12,000 Malian troops. That is impressive. But there is a disconnect between political rhetoric, which hints at fears of American abandonment, actual policy, which makes no pretence of filling such a vacuum, and practical action, which is even further behind.
A recent study by Britain’s IISS and Germany’s DGAP think-tanks found that the EU would struggle to meet most of the ambitions implied by its own common security and defence policy, itself a modest document. It would be out of its depth altogether if it faced simultaneous crises or if Britain, which makes up a quarter of the bloc’s defence spending, stayed away. Bigger fights, such as the air campaign against Libya in 2011, are out of the question.
Furthermore, although some PESCO projects are innovative and important, like anti-mine drones and plans to share overseas bases, others are more dubious. A proposed spy school will be run by Greece and Cyprus; both have extensive ties to Russia.
Instead of working through clunky institutions, many Europeans are simply cutting smaller deals. Last year Britain bolstered bilateral defence ties to France, Poland, Germany and Norway. To the north, Sweden, Finland and Norway are integrating their air and naval forces. In the south, Estonia has chipped into France’s war in Mali. A genuine European army seems a long way off.