Europeans Will Now Decide What Europe Will Be

Europeans Will Now Decide What Europe Will Be
AP Photo/Michael Sohn

This article was created in collaboration with the European Council on Foreign Relations. Josef Janning is the head of ECFR's Berlin office. The views expressed here are the author's own.

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Despite his celebration this weekend with British politician Nigel Farage -- in a Trump Tower golden elevator, no less -- the president-elect of the United States is not an anti-European in the sense we in Europe are most familiar with.


And despite his “Brexit plus, plus, plus” predictions, Donald Trump’s presidency does not necessarily presage an attempt to disrupt or to destroy European integration. Trump is no Farage or Marine Le Pen. In fact, President Trump will care little about Europe and whether it rises or falls. What Trump wants is to right the imbalance between the commitments and returns he sees in the United States’ foreign relations. Like the now-wealthy nations in East Asia, EU countries fit Trump’s dictum about self-defense and American support: The United States should not provide to them what they could afford themselves.

What this means is that what Europe is to become will be for the Europeans to decide.

This could hardly be news to European policymakers. No president has ever spelled out the link between burden-sharing and the U.S. security assurance in such drastic terms as has Donald Trump, but several have looked at the issue in similar ways, particularly since the demise of the Soviet Union. Other presidents have muted their criticism because of the value of U.S.-led alliance systems to America’s global role. Now, the precondition for partnership with the United States will be Europe's ability to defend itself, and no longer its inability to do so.

In the 1990s precious years were wasted during which Europeans could have developed, debated, and implemented a defense structure of scale. Instead of using the momentum of change to devise an efficient European scheme of territorial defense -- the contingency they had spent so much money on when Europe was divided -- they set about spending the peace dividend internally. Now, building a collective European defense seems next to impossible -- it runs counter to the intergovernmental trend that has shaped European security over the past two decades. To be sure, much more is done in terms of cooperation, joint development, and procurement than was 20 years ago, and some remarkable projects of integration of forces exist. But it still looks like a set of warm-up exercises to a marathon, rather than the real run.

Policymakers in European capitals for the most part know that committing to spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense will not by itself solve the puzzle, even if the target is reached by 2020. Roughly two-thirds of Europe’s defense spending comes from just Britain, France, and Germany, the first two of which evince little interest in helping other European countries achieve more bang for their euro in defense spending. Another part of the problem is that at least one-third of that spending would mostly go to subcritical or redundant structures. It would be spent on an inefficient deployment scheme and on paying, equipping, and commanding too many soldiers in uniform while underspending on research and development. Such a vast asymmetry cannot be addressed through voluntary intergovernmental cooperation with very little in the way of common assets. Such is the lesson of the past decades of defense cooperation within NATO and the European Union.

The answer for European countries in the age of Trump lies in genuine integration of territorial defense. Europeans may differ over the strategy and operations of projecting military force beyond Europe, but they are all bound by clear-cut solidarity articles on territorial defense in NATO and the European Union. After changes to Russia’s foreign and military policy, to many Europeans the threat to integrity coming from Moscow is no longer merely a residual challenge.

Yet the political conditions in Europe put such integration far out of reach. A coalition of willing nations could, and should, make it their goal -- a goal pursued in the name of Europe, but one that would require its own formal agreement if the permanent structured cooperation clause of the EU treaties is too cumbersome for the cause. In normal times, British opposition, French frustration with Germany’s unwillingness to adopt Paris’s strategic parameters, and German historical trauma around building a big territorial army in the center of Europe would kill any such initiative at inception.

Genuine defense integration thus seems improbable right now. But as we have recently learned, the improbable can quickly become the inevitable. With 28 or 27 members there is no agreement on how to proceed, so the new world of European defense will be built from the bottom up. Instead of launching a European Defence Community as was tried in the 1950s, this time integration should begin with two or three countries taking the initiative of pooling their defense, with the option of bringing in neighbors later on. Essentially, such an approach involves Germany and … which other European country? France, the nuclear power focused on force projection beyond Europe? The Netherlands, whose army is mostly organized in joint structures with the German army already? What about Denmark, Austria, or the Czech Republic? There is a lot of history to overcome. What about Poland, equally driven by fear of Russia and distrust of Germany? Berlin and Warsaw launching such an initiative would constitute another “Schuman moment” in European politics. Neither Warsaw nor Berlin, however, seem right now to feel the spirit that drove Robert Schuman to propose the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community, the predecessor to what is now the European Union.

The second real challenge of an American retreat from the European theater runs even deeper: Rather than spurring closer cooperation, such a dynamic could lay bare the underlying weakness of Europe. To the fore may come the many differences and rivalries among the nation-states of Europe, the mistrust and the animosities between them, the cleavages between north and south, east and west, between the rich and poor, the large and the small, and between the large as well as between the small.

Since the end of World War II, the overwhelming presence of the United States and the forward march of European integration have together worked to relax intra-European tensions. Alas, the moment in which a Jacksonian is elected to the White House finds the European Union already struggling with forces that threaten to tear it apart. It is now likely that neither U.S. presence nor EU integration will be there to halt the diverging trajectories of EU member states. European countries will need to undertake clear-eyed assessments of security threats and respond accordingly. How they respond could define their collective future for decades to come.

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