Time to End the Big Franco-German Misunderstanding on Security
One should be grateful to Germany’s minister of defense and France’s president for having publicly presented the two development paths for European security policy in recent days in a sharp but clear tone. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer first called the idea of strategic autonomy for Europe an “illusion.” Emmanuel Macron pointedly countered that this was a “faulty interpretation of history.” She responded in her speech at the Bundeswehr University in Hamburg, saying Europe’s most important ally in security and defense policy remained the United States. Without its nuclear and conventional capabilities, Germany and Europe could not protect themselves. For Kramp-Karrenbauer, these were the sobering facts from which conclusions for the EU had to be drawn.
The intensity of the disagreement is surprising since the past four years had left the impression that German and French ideas on security policy had converged. Since cooperation with President Donald Trump was largely impossible, Berlin and Paris seemed to draw the same conclusion. Europe could no longer rely on the United States, and it had to reflect on its own strengths and take its fate into its own hands. France and Germany thus gave fresh momentum to their security and defense policy cooperation and finally gave something of a boost to the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). The ambitious military capabilities that the two countries intend to develop and procure together—above all the Future Combat Air System aircraft and the Main Ground Combat System tank—should contribute to the EU becoming a globally capable actor in security and defense. In the Treaty of Aachen signed in January 2019, Germany and France also committed themselves to working toward “strengthening Europe’s ability” to “act independently.”
But with Trump voted out of office and a policy change in the United States looming, it has become clear that France and Germany based their joint call for greater European capacity to act and strategic autonomy on different motives, and that they have associated very different operational scenarios with it. France’s call for other EU members to improve their military capabilities has always gone hand-in-hand with the hope that these would relieve the French armed forces. It hoped for support from its European allies in the “war against international terrorism” it has been waging since the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, particularly in the Middle East and the Sahel.
Germany, on the other hand, saw increased efforts to improve the military capabilities of the EU states primarily as a vehicle for defusing U.S. criticism of the supposedly unfair burden-sharing in transatlantic security relations. Becoming more European in order to remain transatlantic has always been the guiding principle. Germany also regards CSDP primarily as a political project to strengthen cohesion among member states and to give new impetus to EU integration. Its concrete operational scenarios vaguely focused on crisis management in the European neighborhood. Above all, Germany never regarded the EU as an alternative security structure for national and alliance defense. Accordingly, Macron’s offer, made in February, to integrate the French nuclear arsenal into a common European defense strategy and to involve European partners in corresponding French military exercises fell on deaf ears in Berlin.
In the coming weeks, therefore, not only must a new transatlantic security agenda be formulated, but a Franco-German understanding is also needed on the scope of strategic autonomy and the steps necessary for it.
This should be based on three pillars. First, a common commitment that the priority for multilateral alliance and national defense in the Euro-Atlantic area will continue to lie with NATO. This should be stated before President Biden’s expected trip to Europe in the spring of 2021. Second, an equally clear commitment to independent military crisis management by the EU in Europe’s neighborhood. Third, a commitment to further deepen military integration in the EU and the associated need to transfer the relevant sovereignty to Brussels. The last step in particular is not easy for either France or Germany, but the dispute of recent days has illustrated that both have been content for too long with speeches and feigned certainties.
The authors are senior fellows at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik) in Berlin.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.