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The Real Importance of the EU Defense Discussion

Walter Russell Mead

The New York Times reports from the first big post-Brexit EU confab which took place yesterday in Bratislava:

At a moment when many voters across the Continent want national governments to reclaim power from Brussels, the leaders of 27 European Union countries debated proposals Friday that would move in the other direction by creating a joint European military headquarters and increase cooperation among their armed forces.

The proposals, still at an early stage, were among the most far-reaching on the summit meeting’s agenda, the second to be held since Britain voted in June to leave the bloc. Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain was not invited to the gathering, and the prominence of the military proposals was evidence of how the absence of her country — long opposed to anything that resembled a European military command — is already altering debate within the bloc.

Missing from the Time discussion is the degree to which the proposal for a European defense force represents an effort by France and other countries disturbed by Germany’s economic and political preponderance in Europe to develop a European initiative that plays to a French strength. With the UK leaving, France is now the greatest military power in the EU, and would necessarily exercise a lot of influence over an EU-only defense organization.

The goal of a Europe-only defense organization has been a longtime goal of French policy. It is partly about reducing the power of NATO, an alliance France has thought was too US-centric going back to the time of Charles de Gaulle.

But there’s more to it than that. It would be the most natural thing in the world, for example, for a European defense organization to coordinate arms purchases by member states, ensuring large markets for European arms makers and tech firms. That’s a very big deal to countries like France and Italy, where these firms are part of a system of large companies closely connected to the major banks and to the government.

In the wake of Brexit, the most important thing going on in EU politics now is the attempt to recalibrate the Franco-German relationship. That relationship has been the driving force in European integration going back to the 1950s. While the British were in the EU, it was their strategic goal to weaken that partnership to increase their own influence in the group. And to a significant degree, they succeeded. The British were among the main proponents of EU enlargement; Franco-German dominance of a union of 27 member states is much less than in the original six founding members. the EU divided into three groupings of countries: a more liberal and outward looking northern tier of countries like Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and the Baltics, an eastern group of former Warsaw Pact countries from the Balkans up through Poland, and the Club Med from Greece to Portugal. In this situation, Germany had a structural advantage; France by both interests and outlook was closest to the Club Med countries, so Germany had lots of allies on most questions that set the statist south agains the liberal north.

Brexit is going to change those dynamics. The northern bloc is now weaker. The Club Med countries, who want economic relief without painful new reforms, are already trying to figure out how to work the new political math to their advantage.

The other thing undercutting the Franco-German partnership has been the economic weakness of France under the euro. It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. The French demanded German participation in the euro as the price for allowing the unification of East and West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The French thought they had rigged the European monetary union in a way that would give French business a long term advantage over Germany. When the Germans responded by making their industry much more efficient, even as the French wasted the benefits of the monetary union, that changed. The euro is now a problem for France and provides Germany with significant advantages over less nimble European economies.

The French establishment seems to believe that not a lot of progress can be made on the euro issue, at least as long as Merkel and her tightfisted CDU/CSU partners are running the show. Also, direct attempts to turn the euro into what Germans call a “transfer union” (in which German money flows endlessly to Club Med countries) solidify German resistance without making progress. In any case, the French ambition isn’t to be the head of Club Med, the largest and most demanding of Europe’s debtor bloc. France wants to be the co-head of the EU, not the head of a faction within it.

Opening up a defense dossier in the EU looks to the French like a classically Gaullist move. It increases French prestige in Europe and elsewhere. It plays to a French strength and a German weakness—the Germans do not really want much defense responsibility, especially if that came at the price of a lot more defense spending. It opens the door to fiscal relief by the back door—France could reasonably push the case that its burden of defense spending in the common EU interest should give it some more budgetary room—its defense spending, in other words, should at least be partly exempted from eurozone budget rules. And, by supporting the French arms and high tech industry, the European defense initiative boosts the French economy.

From an American point of view, especially as Russia becomes more aggressive, this is a bad thing. Indeed, the consequences of Brexit for European defense policy and the future of NATO were among the most important reasons that many Americans wanted Britain to remain in the EU. Defense will be only one of the ways in which a post-Brexit EU moves in directions that make transatlantic cooperation more difficult, and undermine the value to both the U.S. and the EU of British friendship. The Western alliance had enough problems already; the next American president is going to face more difficulties in Europe than Barack Obama did.

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