By Andrew Hammond

The EU isn’t getting weaker – in fact, it’s planning to have its own army

August 30, 2017

Emmanuel Macron hosts his German, Spanish and Italian counterparts in Paris on Monday after a morale-boosting few weeks for the EU.

Both the political and economic news for the continent has improved driving up the Euro this week to eight year highs against the pound.  

Following the failure of far-right populists to win key electoral contests in France and the Netherlands, leaders sense that the current Eurosceptic wave may have reached its peak. This political fillip has been reinforced by stronger economic data too.  After several years of slow growth, the Eurozone economies are performing better.

While only time will reveal if the tide is truly turning beyond the immediate-term, the victories of liberal, centrists Emmanuel Macron in France, and Mark Rutte in the Netherlands, is a significant change in fortunes for those forces championing European unity and integration across the continent. It was Macron’s victory that proved most decisive here given the potentially existential threat to the EU project that the election of anti-Brussels National Front leader Marine Le Pen would have signaled.

That these political and economic developments have, collectively, changed sentiment is shown by Italy’s Europe Minister Sandro Gozi. She remarked recently that we “now have a possibility of launching a new phase…we have to make the best of Brexit negotiations, we have to limit the damage…on the other hand it is essential that there will be a parallel process of relaunch and deepening of European integration”.

Key European leaders
The contrast here with the mood music of key European leaders from only a few months ago is striking.  For instance, European Council President Donald Tusk said in February that the threats facing the EU were then “more dangerous than ever”. He identified three key challenges “which have previously not occurred, at least not on such a scale” that the EU must tackle.

The first two dangers related to the rise of anti-EU, nationalist sentiment across the continent, plus the “state of mind of pro-European elites” which Tusk then feared was too subservient to “populist arguments as well as doubting in the fundamental values of liberal democracy”. At that stage, it was feared by some not only that Le Pen could pull off an upset victory, but also that the anti-establishment conservative Freedom Party, led by so-called “Dutch Trump” Geert Wilders, could top the poll in the Netherlands.

While the salience of these two issues has subsided, perhaps only temporarily, the third threat cited by Tusk remains. That is what he called the new geopolitical reality that has witnessed an increasing assertive Russia and China, and instability in the Middle East and Africa which has driven the migration crisis impacting Europe.  And intensifying this is uncertainty from Washington with Donald Trump openly calling for more Brexits across the continent.

Nevertheless, numerous European leaders believe recent economic and political news has brought in at least a temporary respite and potentially a ‘window of opportunity’ to move forward with a new agenda. And leaders from Macron to Angela Merkel believe that a key item is how best to improve the internal and external security of Europe, while enhancing the socio-economic welfare of citizens through a jobs, growth and competitiveness agenda.

While such a force is at best a longer-term aspiration, the European Defense Action Plan has a goal of reversing around a decade of defense spending cuts by EU states.
 The EU project

Here there is growing consensus around what several European leaders have called a new, Twenty First Century European security pact comprising measures to enhance security and border protection; and greater EU intelligence cooperation to emphasize the resilience of the EU project. Indeed, given current disagreements within Europe on the wisdom of wider integration initiatives, including in the economics area, security issues are one of the few areas where there is significant consensus across the member states and Brussels on the continent’s best way forward.

Impetus for movement forward on this security agenda has been provided by recent terrorist attacks, the ongoing migration crisis, and the launch last year by High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, of a new global strategy on foreign and security policy, the first such European document since 2003. Reflecting this, Tusk has asserted that “people expect that the EU...will again be a guarantor of stability, security and protection”.

Moreover, on a related theme, Brussels also now senses a potential window of opportunity to push forward a proposed European Defense Action Plan that advocates greater military cooperation between the EU member states. This is being driven, in part, by the new geopolitical reality cited by Tusk that includes Russian assertiveness post-Crimea; plus the threat of Trump to scale down the U.S. security commitment to NATO, and his campaign rhetoric that Washington should not defend European allies that are perceived not to be paying their fair share of contributions to the military alliance.And Brexit too could now also eliminate a longstanding obstacle to greater European cooperation in this area given that successive UK governments have been opposed to deeper defense integration at the EU level.

One signal of potential direction of travel came last year when European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker asserted the EU needs its own army, a proposal welcomed by German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, so Europe can “react more credibly to the threat to peace in a member state or in a neighboring state”. While such a force is at best a longer-term aspiration, however, the European Defense Action Plan has a goal of reversing around a decade of defense spending cuts by EU states, totaling more than 10 per cent in real terms.

Taken overall, a growing number of European leaders sense that the Eurosceptic wave may now have passed its peak and that at least a temporary window of opportunity may now exist to move forward with a new integration agenda.  Decisions taken in coming months will help define the longer-term political and economic character of the EU in the face of the continuing threats still facing the continent.

(Source: Independent)

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