European security after the end of the Cold War and Brexit

, by Sabin Selimi

European security after the end of the Cold War and Brexit
British soldiers training together with the French Foreign Legion in 2014. © Crown Copyright 2014 (Photographer: Sgt Brian Gamble) (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The United Kingdom is one of the leading military powers in Europe and one of the few NATO members that meet the 2% target for defence spending. Soon after the UK voted to exit the European Union two years ago, the German defence minister said that her country and France would lead talks with other members for closer defence cooperation in the EU. She said that the UK had ‘paralysed’ progress regarding the Union’s defence cooperation. Although Brexit will remove one of the EU’s greatest military assets, it should serve as a motivation to the remaining 27 member countries to ramp up their common security and defence policy efforts.

Both France and Germany are NATO members. France, a nuclear-armed state with a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, is more willing to act unilaterally, considering their recent interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic. Germany, on the other hand, is not yet ready to initiate any military operation abroad as it is still more reluctant than France to deploy military force. Germany has mostly worked within the NATO framework such as in the case of humanitarian intervention in Kosovo. Germany will also act in coalition with other allies such as in the case of Berlin’s support to the international anti-Daesh coalition following the Paris terrorist attacks three years ago.

Yet, Paris and Berlin do not necessarily agree on the end goal of the EU’s common defence and security policy due to the differences in their cultures of strategic adjustment. The new German defence white paper aims at creating a ‘European Security and Defence Union’. The white paper changes the German tone by aiming at a more active Germany in its own security but also that of its European allies.

Since its reunification, Germany has continued to be hesitant about the use of military force abroad. However, as the perception of insecurity in the post-Cold War Europe has worsened, public opinion in Germany has finally been convinced of the need for a more proactive German security policy. Paris is interested in a loose defence and security policy rather than a supranational project of symbolic importance to the Germans. The French perceive the EU’s common defence as an important option for when the United States does not intervene in crises in the European neighborhood—this was the main goal of the French-British Saint-Malo declaration in December 1998 at the end of the Yugoslav wars.

Now with the new administration in the United States and Brexit debate in the UK, Europe’s strategic landscape is changing. Many EU member countries, including the two European heavyweights France and Germany, do not meet NATO’s 2% target. US defence spending has always been higher than other members’ budgets since the creation of NATO, but the gap grew wider after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. All this raises the question of how Brexit and the changing landscape in the continent will affect Europe’s security architecture. Will Germany play a more prominent role in the Union’s common security and defense policy? Will France and Germany use the UK’s absence to push for closer defence cooperation in the EU?

Last year, due to the changing strategic landscape in Europe, the collective defence spending of the EU member countries rose by 4.3%, although with only a handful of NATO members—Poland among them—meeting the 2% target. As EU member countries move towards creating a more integrated defence policy, another key question to emerge from this process concerns the role of former communist countries. Among these countries, Poland has the largest population and defence budget, and is one of the few NATO members to have met the 2% target of defence spending since after the end of the Cold War.

With 22 out of 28 EU member countries being part of NATO, its Secretary General Stoltenberg has urged them to avoid duplication of NATO structures. NATO’s problem is not that the United States may abandon the continent’s defence, but rather that Washington might tire of European free riders. Washington has repeatedly signaled that the priority is getting Europeans to meet the 2% target. However, there is a growing belief among Europeans that they can no longer fully rely on the United States due to Washington’s shift of attention away from Europe and viewing their main security challenges as being in parts of the world such as the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific.

Nevertheless, progress on defence cooperation has accelerated, and the resulting momentum is likely to be sustained in the coming years. The fragile environment in the Balkans and Russian activity in Ukraine and tensions on the northeastern frontiers have made the European leadership rethink their strategic priorities. Brexit may encourage Russia to seek to undermine the unity of the EU. These dangers may serve as a wake-up call to Europeans, prompting them to be more united. Brexit, however, places the UK outside of the EU’s key decision-making body in which member countries decide on the future of defence policy. This would ideally create a European defence run by France and Germany.

The timing seems favorable for a more unified European defence with a narrative capable of transforming the EU’s identity and role in the rapidly changing world. Under a stronger defence and security policy, the Union should be able to respond to crises in the European neighborhood and beyond. This may mean that the Europeans will have to increase defence spending and strengthen capabilities—long argued by the United States and NATO itself. France’s desire for a more unified security architecture in Europe and Germany’s major transformation to enter hard power politics will give birth to a fertile ground for change of course.

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