EU, French militaries prepare to go it alone after Brexit, US warnings

Philippe Desmazes, AFP | French soldiers patrol near Timbuktu in northern Mali in June 2015.

Brexit will see the departure of the EU’s largest military force, leaving France as the bloc’s main military power. And as the US pressures Europe to take more responsibility for its own defense, much of that burden will likely fall on Paris.


Speaking at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers on Friday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson once again called on European nations to commit 2 percent of GDP to defense spending, as agreed at a 2014 NATO summit in Wales.

NATO's 2016 annual report noted that only five countries – the United States, Britain, Estonia, Greece and Poland – met the 2 percent target, with the US providing 68 percent of total NATO defense spending.

"It is no longer sustainable for the US to maintain a disproportionate share of NATO's defense expenditures," Tillerson told the foreign ministers gathered in Brussels.

Tillerson was reiterating similar statements made by US President Donald Trump, who sparked concern in interviews with European media outlets before he took office when he described the NATO alliance as “obsolete” because it had failed to tackle the challenges posed by global terrorism.

During a visit to NATO’s Brussels headquarters in February, US Defense Secretary James Mattis warned that Washington might "moderate" its commitment to NATO if other alliance members did not do their fair share.

A Western alliance that arose out of the Cold War, NATO provides a framework for mutual protection among its 28 member nations. Much of its deterrent power is provided by the United States, however, which earlier this year sent 4,000 more troops to Poland – the largest deployment of US forces to Europe since the end of the Cold War – in a move aimed at sending a message to Russia over its expansion into Ukraine. In March 2014 Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and has provided support to pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east.

"We want to have a discussion around NATO's posture in Europe, most particularly in Eastern Europe in response to Russia's aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere," Tillerson told reporters last week in Brussels.

He went on to say that the NATO alliance is "fundamental to countering both non-violent, but at times violent, Russian agitation and Russian aggression".

Tillerson's comments struck a more bellicose chord than those often made by Trump, who has repeatedly stressed his desire to improve relations with Moscow. European allies have worried that these better ties might come at the expense of the pro-Western government in Ukraine, or the former Soviet states of the Baltics and Europe’s east.

But NATO itself has acknowledged that member states need to boost their defense contributions.

“While recognising that the US’ status as a global power means its defense spending is not directly comparable to that of other NATO members, Allies accept the need for a better balance,” the alliance said in its latest annual report.

Speaking in March, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said it was reasonable to expect member states to reach the 2 percent of GDP target.

“It is realistic that all allies should reach this goal," he said. "All allies have agreed to it at the highest level and it can be done.”

Europe on its own

The dawning realization that the West’s two main military powers are becoming increasingly isolationist has left Europe facing some uncomfortable realities.

Britain’s exit from the EU will see the departure of the only EU member besides France that possesses nuclear weapons. And across the Atlantic, Donald Trump’s presidency “raises serious questions about the endurance and credibility of the security guarantees given by Washington”, writes Corentin Brustlein, head of the Security Studies Centre at the French Institute of International Relations.

In an analysis entitled “Defense: The Moment of Truth”, Brustlein says this new US disinterest “shines a cold light on the military capability areas in which France and Europe are dependent on the United States”.

In response to these and other geostrategic shifts, European Union nations have already announced plans for a significant increase in defense spending. In his September 2016 State of the Union speech, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker highlighted the importance of investing in common defense capabilities, including cyber security.

“If Europe does not take care of its own security, nobody else will do it for us,” Juncker said. “A strong, competitive and innovative defense industrial base is what will give us strategic autonomy."

In late November the European Union announced significant increases in defense spending, including allocating €5.5 billion annually to help members purchase military hardware such as updating their arsenals with drones.

As part of a new European Defence Action Plan, the European Commission also proposed €25 million for defense research as part of the 2017 budget, forseeing that this could rise to as much as €90 million leading up to 2020.

France: Into the void?

France spends more on defense than any other European nation except Great Britain, and after Brexit it will become the EU’s main defense contributor, significantly ahead of even Germany.

According to preliminary NATO figures for 2016, the UK spent €49.3 billion on defense to France’s €39.8 billion and Germany’s €37.1 billion. As a percentage of GDP, the United Kingdom exceeds NATO's 2 percent threshold at 2.2 percent. France and Germany lag behind with 1.8 percent and 1.2 percent, respectively.

France has launched significant military operations overseas in the past several years, notably its intervention against Islamists in northern Mali and a stabilization mission in the Central African Republic in 2013. It is also a member of the US-led coalition of nations battling the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

In July 2015, still reeling from the Charlie Hebdo attacks of that January, France passed the Military Programming Law, which raised defense spending that year by €600 million. Another €600 million increase was approved in 2016, bringing the 2017 military budget to €32.7 billion (excluding pensions).

But some security experts say these increases are inadequate to deal with the increasing and diversifying threats France and Europe are facing.

“The increase in funding initiated timidly by the government after the terrorist attacks of 2015 is real enough, but fragile,” Brustlein wrote, warning that the “situation remains critical”.

“If the financial resources devoted to defense are not increased significantly, France’s military model of strategic autonomy will soon be at risk, at the very time when the international environment serves to show, once again, why it is needed and relevant.”

Brustlein recommends that France increase its spending by €1-2 billion each year over the next five years. Any delay, he said, could "reduce France’s freedom of manoeuvre and the credibility of its foreign policy”.

France’s chief of staff for defense, General Pierre de Villiers, has also issued an urgent call for a revamp of defense capabilities. It is extremely rare for a French military official to make a public appeal. But in a December 2016 op-ed in French business journal Les Echos, Villiers put it bluntly: “You can’t win a war without a war effort.”

Moreover, he said, today’s threats necessitate a “comprehensive” response, “because winning the war is not enough to secure the peace”.

The world has returned to being a system of competing great powers, Villers wrote. “At the gates of Europe, in Asia, in the Near and Middle East, more and more countries are pursuing strategies based on the balance of power. Look at the facts: all are re-arming.”

He called the Military Programming Law a “first step”, but urged France to increase its military spending to 2 percent of GDP within the next five years.

A new Franco-German alliance

The possibility of a new Franco-German partnership to fill the vacuum left by Britain has also been raised as a possibility. Berlin and Paris have both said they want to strengthen the Eurocorps, a military group of EU and NATO states, and are considering ways to deploy EU forces more rapidly. 

“After the British vote to leave the Franco-German couple is the obvious pair to provide leadership for EU defence,” writes research fellow Sophia Besch of the Centre for European Reform. “France will be the only country left in the EU that can credibly project force abroad, and not many initiatives can succeed in Brussels without Germany’s support.”

“And post-Brexit, the EU may be able to unfreeze some of the defence initiatives – such as an EU military headquarters – that the UK has vetoed in the past,” she added.

At a November meeting of EU defense and foreign ministers in Brussels, officials were authorized to to go ahead with a protocol known as “permanent structured cooperation” or Pesco, which could include the establishment of a military headquarters to run EU missions. An article under the EU treaty, Pesco calls for the permanent integration of military forces but has never been implemented.

Participating member states may be called upon to increase the "interoperability, flexibility and deployability" of their troops and coordinate their procurement plans.

So far, the EU appears to be taking steps to meet the challenges posed by recent geostrategic shifts. But in an October speech, French President François Hollande warned Europe against slipping back into a state of complacency.

“There are countries – European countries – that think the United States will always be there to protect them,” he said. “[There] are some that think the conflicts in the Middle East don’t concern them, that Africa has no link to Europe apart from a few migrants…”

“Those countries must be warned,” Hollande said. “Today we’re in a global world. Conflicts necessarily affect us. So those European countries must be told – and I won’t stop doing so – that if they don’t defend themselves, they will no longer be defended.”

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning