Europe has been striving to coordinate its military forces on a regular basis since the second half of the 20th century. But the problems, as with any armed alliance, are myriad. According to a report that just ran on German national radio, this was one of the key reasons Donald Trump chose to jettison America’s security guarantees to the nation of NATO’s easternmost nations, standing alongside Russia.
European countries lack a coherent legal basis to give their forces a common identity, and are thus unable to develop the kinds of forces that might be needed in a war with Russia or, even worse, China. The West’s conventional military power is seen in a distant and negative light. Because the European Union has more or less been paralyzed by Brexit, continental unity may be impossible for some time. European members prefer to fund traditional political defense programs, such as providing cash to police forces that do not spend enough on their own defenses, in order to keep civilians out of danger from militant assaults and Islamist attacks.
Then there is the problem of coordination. In practice, the United States maintains the broadest military infrastructure in the world while the EU moves in fits and starts, particularly on naval and air forces. There is a sense that the Europeans’ main allies are Germany and France, but that is not an adequate answer. Nor are member states reluctant to acquire military hardware. Finland, Greece, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Bulgaria all recently have committed to be first in line for the THAAD missile defense system, while in the Balkans NATO’s Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has agreed to station troops in Turkey in order to assist with the training of its army. Yet politics in these countries prevents the need for immediate deployment. Both Greece and Portugal are expected to decide on military spending targets in the coming weeks.
While the EU bureaucracy has struggled to make a difference, the development of a European military infrastructure in a non-NATO and non-U.S. front seems increasingly at risk. If anything, European countries are shying away from buying modern military equipment due to budgetary pressures.
Therefore the EU might well find a new way to communicate its resolve on its military capabilities. The Daily Mail reported that the EU is working on a “long-term strategy” to create a European force capable of engaging Russia and China in their own borders. This would include any potential withdrawal of German-French forces from the southern peninsula of Cyprus, whose territory is directly populated by ethnic Russians. NATO has assured Cyprus that it has a full commitment to Turkey’s territorial integrity and thus that it has no intention of exercising the option of the “managed withdrawal” suggested by European officials. Europe could find a way to simultaneously push back against Russian adventurism, while still maintaining a focus on defense.
It might have something to do with sharing military assets. At the moment, the most commonly used system in Europe is the Franco-German joint-service “Infanji” or “Desarmamentard.” This involves French and German fighter aircraft stationed in Gibraltar as well as on several bases in Germany, stationed in the Syrian crisis. This is a French-German initiative, with France having the primary role as the lead nation. The two countries have discussed a system that would allow the other members of the common European Armed Forces to transfer over the use of French and German fighter aircraft to other countries for missions on the continent.
This operation is designed to facilitate joint European action on the European continent. It suggests the desire to create European joint military organizations rather than one-off US-style “defense” force deployments. Europe has another asset to offer: A large-scale set of naval facilities in all the Mediterranean nations in addition to an air base at Sognefontein in South Africa. These facilities, plus the Black Sea and the Baltic regions, would be useful in controlling North African migration flows and fighting radical militancy in Central Asia.
Though Washington is not officially obliged to allow the establishment of joint European defense forces, many European countries are intent on achieving such a capability in order to do more for themselves and for their citizens. To achieve such goals requires commitments of political will and the ability to unify political culture, bureaucracy, and military planning. This is unlikely to come easily. But over the next few years, the work on establishing the EU’s military infrastructure should begin to make headway. The threat of Russian adventurism in Europe means that Europe and the United States can and should come together to build a ready force to defend themselves together against Moscow’s threats.