While Europe could certainly do with more capabilities and cooperation, a more fundamental change of strategic mindset in Paris and Berlin is required if Europe is to build a more autonomous defence capability. Fabrice Pothier looks beyond recent statements and announcements to examine what their true policy positions are.

© Bundesministerium der Verteidigung

By Fabrice Pothier, Consulting Senior Fellow for Defence Policy and Strategy

Could the current political climate mean that more autonomous European defence is closer to becoming a reality? In voting for Emmanuel Macron, France’s electorate has endorsed the most pro-European president since François Mittérrand. The United Kingdom, the member state most fiercely opposed to beefing up the EU’s defence role, will soon lose its seat at the decision table. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has committed her government to meeting the symbolic 2% defence-spending threshold. And if that were not enough, US President Donald Trump’s wavering commitment to European defence has been read by many in European capitals as a sign that the time has come for Europe to build more autonomous defence capabilities.

It is within this context that the EU Commission has launched a series of initiatives to boost European defence. At their core lies the European Defence and Industrial Fund, which by the next EU budget in 2020, will amount to €5 billion in annual funding for defence science and technology, as well as for acquisition projects of dual-use capabilities by groups of member states. These initiatives are not new; they were in fact begun in late 2013. It took much arm-twisting and negotiations, especially between France and Germany, to get enough support to unlock European Commission funding for military capabilities, something initially seen by Berlin and the Commission as against the spirit of the EU’s treaties. But times have changed and there is a clear new impetus to build a stronger European defence capability.

Fundamentals unchanged

Yet beyond the encouraging announcements, the fundamentals of European defence remain unchanged. France has engaged more troops than any other member state in overseas operations to fight terrorist groups. While it benefits from the support of the United States in the Sahel, mostly in terms of intelligence sharing and special-forces cooperation, and other European forces are engaged in training local forces, France is largely alone in leading operations in the Sahel.

Germany remains far off the 2% spending mark – it is projected to spend 1.2% of GDP on defence in 2017 – and the Chancellor’s main opponent in this September’s federal election, Martin Schulz, has poured cold water on Germany’s commitment to that goal. This might simply be electioneering, but it clearly resonates with a large segment of German voters. The other mid-weight military powers in Europe, such as Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, are unlikely to recover the ground lost after failing over the past few decades to invest adequately in defence in general and in science and technology in particular.

The one central European member state that could make a difference in European defence is Poland. Yet it is torn between its reliance on US security guarantees and its potential to play a larger role in Europe. The recent announcement by Warsaw to buy the US-made Patriot missile-defence system will be seen, particularly in Paris, as yet another setback for years of efforts to move Poland closer to a European defence core (and therefore to also acquire capabilities made in Europe). The clash between the Polish government, the Commission and large member states on rule of law issues complicates relations even further.

Reasons for optimism

Many officials in Paris and Brussels believe that these limitations are not insurmountable, however. The key, as they see it, is to get Germany to be more willing to play an active role in European defence matters. If a Franco-German defence drive can be started, the rest of Europe will follow, so the logic goes. It comes as no surprise that the French and German leaders have announced in Paris a new series of cooperation measures on defence capabilities, including to develop the next generation of fighter jet. While Europe can do with more capabilities and more cooperation to reduce the inefficient use of scarce resources, the real game changer lies elsewhere. It is in a more fundamental change of strategic mindset in Paris and Berlin.

For France’s part, this means accepting that other European partners should have a greater say in the planning and decisions around external operations. The first French operation in the Sahel – Serval – launched in January 2013 serves as a counter-point to this: Paris decided to intervene against Mali-based terrorist groups advancing on Bamako with little if any consultation with its European partners. Even if time was indeed of the essence, given that columns of pick-up trucks loaded with fighters were descending on Bamako, this came at a political cost. EU partners were less than willing to respond to French demands for assistance when presented with a fait accompli. It took years of patient diplomacy by Paris to get more support in training local forces and, in a few cases, combat operations.

In Germany’s case, the challenge is the opposite: it is highly reluctant – and limited by constitutional constraints – to deploy the Bundeswehr in external combat operations. And even when it does so – as in the past in Kosovo, Afghanistan and more recently with the global coalition against the Islamic State militant group – German deployments come with significant caveats. In the case of the global coalition, they amount to contributing only to non-combat activities such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance or training Iraqi forces.

Division of labour

Yet Paris and Berlin know that those differences cannot be easily bridged. The thinking, less explicit but nevertheless important, is to seek a de-facto division of labour. Under this arrangement, France could continue to spearhead European external operations along with the UK and a few others, while Berlin and Brussels would provide financial and logistical support to those operations. Germany, in turn, would become the main provider of Europe’s territorial defence.

This division of labour would sit neatly with the respective cultures of the armed forces and decision-makers in both Paris and Berlin. Territorial defence and upholding the principle of collective defence under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty are engrained in Germany’s constitution. The French presidential decision-making system, meanwhile, allows for orders to deploy forces abroad to be given with little scrutiny from either the legislature or the public.

Yet to be viable, this division of labour should rest on France and Germany meeting each other’s expectations. For France it means giving credible guarantees that it will support Germany and other EU partners in territorial defence. The only forum where this can be done at the moment with credibility is NATO. France has contributed to NATO’s recent deterrence measures, including by sending a company to support the UK-led battlegroup deployed in Estonia, and, in 2016, dispatching four Mirage 2000 combat aircraft for air policing in the Baltic. These are important tokens but they fall short of very substantial contributions coming from the de-facto sole nuclear power and most active military power in Europe. In fact, the prime contributor of NATO’s deterrence measures remains the US via its increased troop presence in Europe, including Germany and Poland, and by providing critical capabilities such as airlift and reconnaissance to help support other allied forces. And the US still provides the nuclear umbrella to all allies in Europe.

In that sense, the nuclear question is central. The United States’ extended nuclear deterrence via NATO and the presence of US gravity bombs on German soil and German dual-capable aircraft remains a pillar of Germany’s collective-defence posture. And here France’s reluctance to play a fuller role in NATO’s nuclear planning is seen by many as limiting its influence on other allies, especially Berlin. Some French and German experts recently floated the idea of a possible Franco-German nuclear arrangement. But this has been rapidly dismissed as a pipe dream. French nuclear doctrine rests on the core principle that there is only one decision-maker on nuclear matters: the president. This explains France’s repeated refusal to join the NATO Nuclear Planning Group, which would involve a degree of sharing in nuclear planning and decision-making. For Berlin, opening a debate about nuclear guarantees would be sure to hit a wall of strong public opposition. Therefore, on this fundamental question the status quo is likely to be the rule.

A question of semantics or strategy?

It is within this context that Macron made his first intervention during the 25 May NATO Summit. He repeated France’s standard lines: it is playing its full role on defence, maintaining its autonomy and sovereignty, remains committed to building European defence and is doing its bit for NATO.

While the message was comforting for many diplomats in Paris, it fell short of the expectations of other European allies, including Germany. This means that Europe’s territorial defence will remain dependent to a large extent on the US, and that France cannot be an alternative to it. In consequence, Germany and others still see NATO as the centre of gravity of European defence.

The seldom acknowledged paradox is that, for Berlin, European defence means, first and foremost, the defence of Europe under NATO and Article 5; for Paris, it means more autonomy for Europe. Where France is not ready to give away its sovereignty on defence issues and engage more fully in NATO, Germany still relies on US guarantees. The difference is not only a semantic one. It means that the strategic gap between Berlin and Paris will remain wider than the statements and announcements suggest.

Back to content list


An online database that allows subscribers to customise, compare and download trusted Military Balance data.

Latest Posts

The Military Balance 2018

The Military Balance is the annual IISS assessment of the military capabilities and defence economics of 171 countries.

From £410.00
Product variations
Online Access, Digital Download & Print £660.00 + shipping (Inc VAT if applicable)
Online Access & Digital Download £410.00 (Inc VAT if applicable)
Print edition £410.00 + shipping (Inc VAT if applicable)