Opinion Top Story

European Defense: If Not Now, When?

How many more “wake-up calls” do we need?

Varenna Italy jets
Italian Air Force jets create the country’s tricolor with green, white and red smoke trails over Varenna, September 29, 2019 (Wikimedia Commons/Achille Ballerini)

Pre-Trump America is not coming back. If last week’s announcement of a trilateral defense pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (“AUKUS”) doesn’t convince the last Atlanticists that Europe needs to take matters into its own hands, I don’t know what will.

The new alliance excludes Europe. It snatches a deal to build nuclear submarines from France, the EU’s top military power. And it was negotiated in secret. The three English-speaking leaders didn’t even bother to give their European allies a head’s up!

The French, who would lose a €56 billion contract to build submarines for Australia, have called the snub “a breach of trust” and “a stab in the back.” French ambassadors have been recalled from Canberra and Washington DC for the first time ever.

Other Europeans are frustrated too, with officials calling the Australian about-face “unacceptable.”

Inevitably, it has been dubbed a “wake-up call” by everyone from Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign-policy coordinator, to Michael Roth, Germany’s European affairs ministers. But canceling an Australia-EU trade deal, which the European Commission had hoped to finalize this year, or postponing transatlantic talks about technology cooperation, which are scheduled for next week, won’t make Europe safer. What Europe needs to do is take its own defense seriously.


AUKUS is meant to enhance military-industrial cooperation in the Anglosphere. China isn’t named, but its growing power in Asia is the obvious reason for the pact. The same countries work closely with India, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan.

The alliance’s main exploit so far is an agreement to sell eight American nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.

Australia agreed in 2016 to buy replacements for its aging submarine fleet from France. The deal was for €31 billion, but costs rose to €56 billion over the years. The project was also delayed and French promises to create jobs in Australia, which has no submarine-building industry, weren’t met.

Still, the French have reason to be piqued. Australia could — and should — have let Paris know it was leaving the contract before going into bed with the Americans. Announcing this at the same time as AUKUS, to which the French (who have 1.5 million citizens in the Indo-Pacific) were not invited, added insult to injury and confirms French, and European, suspicions that the English-speaking countries cannot be trusted.

Not the first time

This isn’t the first time France has been brushed aside.

Tony Blair and George W. Bush didn’t just ignore Jacques Chirac’s warning that toppling Saddam Hussein might lead to civil war in Iraq; their underlings derided and mocked the French for refusing to join the ill-fated 2003 invasion.

Hopes were high when Barack Obama succeeded Bush in 2009. France worked closely with the United States in Libya and the Sahel, and in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal. But Obama learned a different lesson from the war in Libya than France and turned down suggestions to lend similar support to the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, a former French colony. When Obama walked back his “red line” to intervene if Assad used poison gas, France, which had been poised to launch joint military strikes, was taken by surprise.

Surprise turned to shock when Americans elected Donald Trump in 2016. Obama’s successor missed no opportunity to throw Europe under the bus. He raised tariffs on European agricultural goods and European-made aircraft, two French exports. He betrayed the Kurds who had been fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State, also with European support. He pulled out of the Paris climate agreement; allowed the New START nuclear treaty with Russia to lapse; withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which had banned American and Russian nuclear weapons from Europe; and withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, which France had considered a major diplomatic coup.

Biden’s election inspired guarded optimism, but the mood turned sour when the new president didn’t coordinate the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, leading to a scramble to evacuate personnel from Kabul in the last weeks of August.

The reason we’re still taking about “wake-up calls” is that Europe has been hitting the snooze button throughout all this, but the Americans have been making their feelings clear for a while.


A sober assessment leads to the same conclusions:

  • The risk that America will once again have to intervene in an intra-European war is virtually nil.
  • Europe remains America’s most important trading partner, but its share is declining.
  • The free flow of oil from the Middle East remains a strategic priority to the United States, but it has become less energy-dependent on the region itself.
  • China has replaced Russia as the main threat to the American-led world order.

So why keep 65,000 troops in Europe and pay for the bulk of NATO’s defense when America’s interests are increasingly in Asia?

Just as it makes sense for America to pivot to Asia, it makes sense for Europe to focus on security threats closer to home, and we shouldn’t expect NATO to fill both roles.


A European army has a long history. Britain, France and the Benelux countries made a defense pact a year before NATO. There were proposals for a “European pillar” within NATO in the 1990s. The EU has nominally had a Common Security and Defense Policy since 1999 and a European Defense Agency since 2004. Both largely exist on paper.

It was during Trump’s presidency, and after Brexit, that Emmanuel Macron of France and Angela Merkel of Germany agreed to create a “true European army”.

25 of 27 EU member states — Denmark and Malta chose not to participate — have committed to enhance military interoperability, pool defense procurement and improve military logistics under the so-called Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO).

The European Commission has created an €8 billion European Defense Fund to finance military technology and a Directorate General for Defense Industry and Space to manage it as well as PESCO’s initiatives.

Separately, thirteen countries have joined in the European Intervention Initiative to be able to rapidly mount military operations, whether for the EU or NATO.

France is the driving force behind all these efforts.

So far the results have been underwhelming. A European Defense Agency review released last year found that military budgets are too tight, planning remains fragmented, coordination is lacking and Europe simply does not have the military capabilities to meet its ambitions. National interests tend to prevail. Only 60 percent of troops and weapons nominally available to NATO are fit to be deployed.

Successful integration is often limited to two countries, such as between Belgium and the Netherlands, which have merged their air defenses, and Germany and Poland, which conduct joint military exercises.

There are examples of successful collaboration in defense procurement. The Eurofighter Typhoon was developed for the air forces of Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain. France, Germany, Italy and Spain are developing a European military drone.

Europe-wide military integration faces two obstacles:

  1. German foot-dragging. German pacifism may long have been commendable; it is becoming a dereliction of duty.
  2. Eastern European apprehensions about weakening the Atlantic alliance, which is understandable so long as Russian provocations never seem to exhaust French and German patience.

Complementing NATO

Hopefully the next German government will take the Russian threat more seriously. The Greens and liberal Free Democrats are more clear-eyed than the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, which have a rosy notion of German-Russian partnership. The two smaller parties will likely be needed for a majority after the election on Sunday. The Free Democrats also call for much higher defense spending.

To put the Eastern Europeans at ease, closer defense union in Europe must complement, not weaken NATO.

Concretely, that could mean taking the European Defense Agency’s advice. In the same review, it recommended prioritizing:

  1. Procuring a European battle tank.
  2. Standardizing soldiers’ equipment and gear.
  3. Developing a European coastal and offshore patrol ship.
  4. Standardizing anti-access/area denial capabilities.
  5. Agreeing a European approach to defense in space.
  6. Improving military mobility across Europe.

Each initiative would allow many member states to participate. Each would build European knowhow. None would undermine NATO, the Atlantic relationship or the United States — except the American defense industry, but when did America last buy weapons from Airbus, Damen or ThyssenKrupp?


  1. A wide-ranging article that raises some interesting points and others to ponder;

    PESCO is on the one hand ambitious and on the other not, in that it seeks to create standardisation in a continent that already has significant standardisation through NATO. This could, and most likely will, lead to institutional toe-stepping and not a few procurement dead-ends.
    The European approach to space has thusfar been mortgaged to Beijing with its involvement in Galileo – this poses a serious potential break with NATO which, as a fundamentally Anglo-Saxon project, will become more guarded to the PRC, via and hence AUSUK.

    Typhoon was an EU procurement success- eventually, but not a shining moment in defence procurement generally. France and Britain, among others, conduct fairly routine exercises – and even military interventions and cooperation – within or without the NATO framework. More of an EU framework might help that, but is not absolutely essential given what is already in place – which is the biggest obstacle to EU defence – the fundamental question of ‘what for’ when there are still considerable US forces and NATO presence (the UK is even sending troops BACK to Germany and heads up the deployment in Estonia, Despite Brexit ™.

    The submarine issue has been blown out of proportion. Paris’ response has been rather petulant, recalling legations, cancelling parties. It became theatre politics for Paris to get Von Der Leyen and Borrell involved. The deal itself was not bilateral, it was with a French (part state-owned) company – no other European country. In the commercial context where is Naval Group’s legal challenge? The deal best served Paris as opening influence as a security actor in the region, and hence the uproar, with Marianne pulling Europa’s apron string. But France is not a as yet viable Pacific partner (and won’t be now) for Australia in the way the US can be and is evidently interested in being so. It’s not in the ‘Quad’ or TPP, It is not a Five Eyes member (and given its intelligence arrangements and increasing collaboration with other EU states, won’t be.) With greater EU defence integration and the strategic focus that would entail for Paris, Canberra was well reasoned to question whether, long term, it would be getting into bed with a distracted, distant, European former-world power, or with a distant bloc more interested in its near abroad and the Sahel.

  2. Hey, James, thanks for your comment!

    Agreed on the substance of the submarine deal. What made it so galling, though, was that France apparently hadn’t been notified in private before the announcement was made in public. That’s bad form, especially among allies. More galling yet is that the cancellation of the French contract was announced at the same time as the American contract. Again – needly aggravating of an ally.

    And a missed opportunity. France is the only EU country with a direct stake in the Pacific. It’s the only major EU country that has demonstrated a willingness to play an international role. Europe and America are currently not in lockstep on China. Biden wants to get the Europeans on board with his policy. You’d think the last thing he’d want to do is alienate the French?

    Coming on the heels of Trump and Brexit, it makes disillusioned Atlanticists (like me) even more disillusioned.

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