Germany, France Push for Tighter EU Defense Amid U.S. Strain

(Bloomberg) -- France and Germany are pushing for the European Union to boost its joint defense capabilities, adding to signs that the pandemic-induced crisis could lead the bloc to deeper integration.

A policy paper circulated ahead of a defense ministers video conference on Tuesday calls for “fostering the EU’s capacity to act as a security provider.” The document, which is also backed by Italy, Spain and other nations, follows a Franco-German proposal on joint EU debt issuance, which will be debated by leaders on Friday and has already garnered the support of the overwhelming majority of the region’s governments.

The move comes during a particularly difficult period in the transatlantic relationship, and after a rocky few weeks when President Donald Trump was said to be mulling the removal of almost 10,000 U.S. troops from Germany, authorized sanctions against the International Criminal Court and again threatened to hit Europe’s auto industry with import tariffs.

Europe and the U.S. have displayed differences over China’s tighter noose on Hong Kong, Chinese telecommunications expansion, the fight against the coronavirus, Israel’s plan to annex West Bank land and Turkey’s encroachment in Syria.

EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell on Monday drew attention to transatlantic divisions while saying the bloc remained keen on working with the U.S.

“We maybe don’t agree on everything, but our commitment to transatlantic cooperation is as strong as ever,” Borrell told reporters in Brussels after he and foreign ministers from the 27-nation EU held a video conference with U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

In a thinly-veiled reference to U.S.-China tensions, the paper -- obtained by Bloomberg -- says defense integration is necessitated by the “the return of power competition and confrontation and the ensuing threat to the rules-based international order.”

Ambition vs. Reality

The Franco-German memo proposes that the EU’s intelligence arm should produce a classified threat assessment by the end of the year, on the basis of which the bloc can decide on how to enhance its joint capabilities in the future, in areas ranging from peace-keeping to space, to cyber security.

The EU has already launched several initiatives to deepen its defense integration, though the funds available for joint procurement pale in comparison to national military budgets. The push has also been mired in tensions, as EU nations often struggle to reach the required unanimity on foreign policy issues, while many are wary of strains with the U.S.-dominated North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has been the bedrock of European security.

The bloc recently re-launched a naval mission to enforce a United Nations-mandated arms embargo on Libya. But it has struggled to garner enough warships, highlighting the gap between reality and ambition.

“The outcome of the latest force generation conference a few days ago was disappointing,” Borrell said in a letter to defense ministers, which was also obtained by Bloomberg, referring to the Libyan mission, known as operation Irini. A separate memo prepared by Borrell’s staff, and seen by Bloomberg, shows that virtually all of the bloc’s military missions are understaffed.

Still, the Franco-German policy paper on defense is another example of the commitment of the EU’s two biggest economies to an ever closer union.

Back in 2018, German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined French President Emmanuel Macron in calling for a “real, true European army.” It seemed unrealistic at the time. But since then the U.K. has left the bloc and NATO’s weaknesses have become apparent, with Macron going as far as calling it “brain dead.”

The EU should safeguard its “technological sovereignty,” according to the memo, and “discuss and identify common European interests and values that ought to be defended and protected.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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