By Pierre Tran
Paris – President Emmanuel Macron called May 9 in a keynote speech in the European parliament at Strasbourg, eastern France, for a broader European defense and security community, a political project made all the more pressing by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Macron called for setting up a “European political community” as a speedy alternative to Ukraine and Baltic nations applying to join the European Union, a procedure which he said would take years, more likely decades, to complete.
The perceived need for closer defense ties was heightened as Russian president Vladimir Putin attended that same day the military parade in Moscow, marking the end of the second world war in Europe in 1945.
As Macron addressed European leaders, Russian forces fought in eastern Ukraine, seeking to seize the Donbas region and securing the hold on Mariupol, a strategic harbor city that ships Ukrainian grain to the world market. Russia was holding the world to hostage with its seizing Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea, U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken said May 19.
With Macron seeking to redraw the geopolitical map for Europe, the European Commission announced May 18 a project, dubbed Defense-EU, to set up streamlined, common procurement, with a proposed cut in value added tax for buying weapons and a €500 million two-year fund to support joint orders among the 27 EU member states.
Macron’s Strasbourg speech pointed up the need to create a “European political community,” to reach out to Balkan nations, including Moldova and Georgia, eager to enter the EU single market, but remaining at the door for some time to come.
“This new European organization would allow democratic European nations that subscribe to our shared core values to find a new space for political and security cooperation, cooperation in the energy sector, in transport, investments, infrastructures, the free movement of persons and in particular of our youth,” he said.
Open Door for the U.K.
“Joining it would not prejudge future accession to the European Union necessarily, and it would not be closed to those who have left the EU,” Macron said of the European political community.
British media, including The Times and The Independent, reported the latter point referred to the U.K., the only nation which has left the EU, with Macron reported to make clear the invitation to London when he spoke in Berlin later that evening.
Macron has sought to form some kind of European military cooperation with the U.K. after Brexit, but so far there is little sign of progress. Britain and France are the two strongest military nations in Europe, but political relations between the two powers have sunk to a new low, following a series of rows, including fishing rights and control of the Channel for refugees and migrants seeking to enter the U.K.
London’s key role in Canberra’s cancellation of a multi-billion euro project for a French shipbuilder, Naval Group, to design and build an attack submarine for the Australian navy also hurt ties between prime minister Boris Johnson and Macron.
As Macron reached out to London for a broad European alliance, the U.K. threatened to renege on the Northern Ireland protocol, a key part of a hardline Brexit agreement negotiated and signed by the government led by Johnson.
A U.K. breach of that protocol with the EU pointed up a split among European allies, critics said, sending a signal of divisive self-harm to Putin, undermining a show of closed ranks among Western allies of Ukraine.
How the U.K. responds to Macron’s call for a wider European defense coalition remains to be seen, as the pursuit and execution of a tough Brexit deal signalled London’s reluctance to engage with Europe.
Macron said in Strasbourg that Europe was not at war with Russia, there was no intent to humiliate Moscow, and it was up to Ukraine to negotiate a settlement. There was also need to address a new security environment in the wake of the war in Ukraine.
“However, we are not at war with Russia,” he said. “We are working as Europeans to preserve the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine so that peace returns to our continent.
“It is up to Ukraine alone to define the conditions for negotiations with Russia. But our duty is to stand with Ukraine to achieve the ceasefire, then build peace. We will then be there to rebuild Ukraine as Europeans, always.
“Because in the end, when peace returns to European soil, we will need to build new security balances and we will need, together, to never give in to the temptation of humiliation, nor the spirit of revenge, because these have already in the past wreaked enough havoc on the roads to peace.”
A rising European concern over Putin’s attack on Ukraine could be seen with Finland and Sweden formally applying to join Nato. That application, if accepted, would extend the 30-strong military alliance to the Finnish 1,340 km common border with Russia, spelling out the significance of a treaty which pledges an attack on one is an attack on all. Macron is the present holder of the six-month rotating presidency of the European Council, which sets E.U. policy. Macron won last month a closely fought presidential election, beating a far-right candidate, and renewing a five-year term as holder of the Elysées office.
Electors go to the polls again next month to vote — or abstain – for members of parliament, and it remains to be seen whether Macron will win backing from a parliamentary majority which will support his aims to reform France.
Macron pursued a strategic autonomy for Europe in his first term, and his Strasbourg speech was seen as an ambition to widen that concept to a broader Europe, reaching out to Balkan nations which have been waiting in line to join the EU single market, all the more seen as a glittering prize in a time of open war on the continent of Europe.
EU Seeks to Boost Capability
“The Europeans need to spend together, more and better,” Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy and security chief, said on the project to boost European military capability.
The European Commission and the European Defense Agency set out May 18 their report, titled Defense Investment Gaps Analysis and Way Forward.
The report sets three priorities, namely refilling ammunition stockpiles, replacing Soviet-era weapons, and strengthening air and missile defense systems. It was clear those aims pointed up the depletion of stocks due to the Ukraine war.
Capabilities in the air, sea, space and cyber defense also needed to be addressed, the report said, and a defense joint procurement task force will be set up to “coordinate an EU response to very short term urgent needs, notably the refilling of stocks.”
“The call for common procurement of standard size munitions is simple,” said François Lureau of consultancy EuroFLconsult and former arms procurement chief. The €500 million budget for joint orders is small, he said, but that could mark the start of the long term aim. A waiver on VAT on weapons deals was standard practice for OCCAR, the European armaments agency.
The longer term political issue is whether there will be an EU procurement office, he said, a “European DGA” (Direction Générale de l’Armement) to place orders for weapons. There will be need for a real political determination for such an outcome.
The European Defense Agency is an EU institution for research and development projects rather than ordering weapons, he said, while OCCAR is separate from the EU.
Who Benefits – Europe or the U.S.?
While there is high level political commitment to boost European capability, there is concern on whether the budget will be spent on European or U.S. arms, whether companies on this side of the Atlantic will benefit rather than see the money flow across the ocean.
Much of European spending on weapons – more than 60 percent – is spent outside the EU, Thierry Breton, European commissioner for internal market, said May 18. EU states would have spent more than €1.3 billion on arms if they had hit the spending target of two percent of gross domestic product since 2008.
Sceptics said on social media the bulk of European arms budgets went on the F-35 fighter jet and Patriot missiles, making European defense nothing more than a pipe dream.
Another drag on political intent are the industrial realities of tough talks on a contract for a technology demonstrator for a next generation fighter, with Dassault Aviation on the French side holding out for clear program leadership against claims for shared management by Airbus on the German side.
There is also a lack of drive on the Franco-German project for a main ground combat system, a plan to replace the Leclerc and Leopard 2 heavy tanks with a system of manned and unmanned armored vehicles.
Also on the European industrial front, the Franco-Italian Navaris, a joint venture for future warships, has been seen as hit below the waterline, with partners Naval Group and Fincantieri competing against each other in the world market.
The Italian shipbuilder pitched its version of the Fremm multimission frigate to Greece, Naval News website reported July 21, 2021.
Athens opted last year for three Naval Group frigates for defense and intervention (FDI).
Thales competes with Leonardo to supply naval radars, a big ticket item on warships.
Germany Stands by France
For Germany, there is strong political will to work with France.
“There is political commitment at a very high level,” a German official said on the European new fighter project.
The fighter is the cornerstone of the European future combat air system and intended to replace the Rafale and Eurofighter.
“There are still issues to be discussed, but they are not insurmountable and (there is) strong interest to find solutions acceptable to both sides,” the German official said.
Spain is partner on the FCAS project, which competes with the British Tempest fighter project. France and Germany are due to hold a ministerial summit meeting in July.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said Germany is committed to supporting the future combat air system, alongside ordering the F-35 fighter to carry Nato nuclear bombs.
Germany is closely coordinating with Nato and E.U. allies on arms deliveries to Ukraine, the German official said.
Scholz has abruptly reversed a previous policy of neutrality on Ukraine and agreed to send heavy weapons to the Ukrainian forces, including authorization for dispatch of the Gepard, a flakpanzer anti-aircraft vehicle built on a Leopard chassis.
Switzerland has declined to allow supply of the Oerlikon 35 mm shells for the Gepard, hitting that groundbreaking German policy switch, but Turkey is a possible alternative supplier of the ammunition, a French land weapons specialist said.
Berlin is also considering whether to green light the despatch of 100 Rheinmetall Marder infantry fighting vehicles to help the hard pressed Ukrainian army. There have also been calls to send the Leopard 2 tank to Ukraine. Germany has approved delivery of the track-mounted Panzerhaubitzen 2000 artillery to Ukraine, including training.
Macron was speaking at a special session of the European parliament in Strasbourg, marking the close of an 11-month reform project of listening to citizens’ juries, at the conference on the future of Europe.
France President Emmanuel Macron pictured at Cotroceni Palace, in Bucharest, Romania, Thursday, August 24, 2017.