Why Afghanistan has revived debate about an EU military

EU flag. [Getty]
5 min read
15 September, 2021
Analysis: The idea of a common EU defence structure has been thrown around in different forms for 50 years. Will the policy find more traction after the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

The disastrous US withdrawal from Afghanistan has sparked a strong debate about the need to create a common European defence policy able to intervene autonomously in crisis scenarios. 

On 28 August, Italian President Sergio Mattarella stated that "it is essential to immediately equip the European Union with instruments of common foreign policy and defence". 

The project of a common EU defence structure has existed for half a century, since the founding of the Union as we know it today. However, it is worth asking whether what happened in Afghanistan and the progressive American disengagement from the Middle East could be a decisive factor in realising this idea.

Back in 1952, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, West Germany, and Italy elaborated a treaty to establish the European Defence Community (EDC). The aim was to use the integration model adopted for the economy, with the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), for defence and security policy. 

"The path towards a common and permanent defence structure is still full of obstacles"

The project was a failure and the treaty remained unratified due to political divisions among members states. The EDC went for ratification in the French National Assembly in 1954 and failed, and the Italian Parliament aborted the project after France's rejection.

However, over the years, the EU has developed common defence mechanisms to support peacebuilding and peace-keeping missions. For example, the bloc runs the EU Integrated Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM) and led the EU Police Mission in Afghanistan (EUPOL), until 2016. Moreover, in 2017 the EU created the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) as part of its security and defence policy.

Analysis
Live Story

Nonetheless, according to Denise Serangelo, president of Analytica for intelligence and security studies, the path towards a common and permanent defence structure is still full of obstacles.

 "The first problem is the strategy beyond military action since the armed forces are just an instrument of foreign policy, which is always dictated by national security strategy," Serangelo told The New Arab.

infographic - Afghanistan evacuations by country

 "It is difficult to establish how the European Union can dispose of any military instrument since it does not have its own unique foreign policy," she added. 

"Considering that the EU is made up of several countries with different strategies in different parts of the world, it becomes extremely complicated to imagine how the European Union can adopt a single foreign policy that is suitable for all participating interests," Serangelo pointed out.

"There is a clash between two conflicting rhetoric discourses about this subject," said Fabrizio Coticchia, associate professor of political science at the University of Genoa. 

"Some observers see EU common defence as a tool for a stronger European sovereignty, which would allow Europe to be more strategically autonomous from the United States and NATO," he told TNA.

"It becomes extremely complicated to imagine how the European Union can adopt a single foreign policy that is suitable for all participating interests"

"Others, in a realpolitik attitude, think that there is no possibility at all to create a common defence structure."

In addition to this, the European defence structure was born and strengthened to respond to traditional threats, such as Russia and the communist bloc. However, the global context has changed, with new sources of instability coming from the Mediterranean and the MENA region.

"Scholars highlight that EU defence is a possible development in the medium term, but there is a problem about different perceptions of threats," Coticchia explained. 

"Take three Europeans; one from Italy, one from Poland, and one from Greece: they'll have very different perceptions of what an external threat is," the professor added. 

Soldiers from the Foreign Legion march down the Champs Elysees, with the Arc de Triomphe in the background, in Paris during a rehearsal of the annual Bastille Day military parade on July 10, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Martin BUREAU (Photo credit should read MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images)
Soldiers from the Foreign Legion march down the Champs Elysees, with the Arc de Triomphe in the background, in Paris on 10 July 2017. [Getty]

"We talk about strategic cacophony: a very different vision of what priorities are."

"Uniting several armies with completely different historical legacies and command structures under a single 'umbrella' could represent a further issue for the EU common defence project," argued Serangelo.

"[What would] the structures of EU Armed Forces be like? Italy has its own way of conducting operations abroad - minimal use of force and strong humanitarianism - which is very different from the French approach. Who is going to decide which approach is the right one," the analyst pointed out. Moreover, "weapons and armed systems are usually projected to reach strategic advantages over other countries," she added.

"Will these technologies be shared with EU partners even if they should remain inaccessible and invulnerable?"

"Uniting several armies with completely different historical legacies and command structures under a single 'umbrella' could represent a further issue for the EU common defence project"

Despite these unresolved issues, it seems that common European defence may have the political momentum to become something more concrete. European ministers of defence and foreign affairs gathered on 2 September in Slovenia to improve the bloc's operational engagement and develop a rapid response force capable of operating in difficult military theatres. 

The meeting came three days after the end of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. "It's clear that the need for more European defence has never been as much as evident as today after the events in Afghanistan," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said

"There are events that catalyse history," he added. "I think that Afghanistan events are one of those cases" which "push the history and create a breakthrough."

Analysis
Live Story

Discussions about a common EU defence policy will continue in the coming weeks, but any decisive progress will probably be frozen until the elections in Germany, scheduled on 26 September. Any political equilibrium and future European foreign policy will largely depend on the new German leadership. 

The Indo-Pacific region is the new centre of the geopolitical confrontation between the US and China. Europe and the MENA region, which are no longer the US-USSR battleground, are now on the periphery and will have to manage these major changes by themselves, as the US fulfils a progressive disengagement in favour of a Pacific-centred and China-oriented foreign policy.

Francesco Petronella is a journalist and geopolitical analyst at the Treccani Institute, with a focus on foreign policy and the MENA region. 

Follow him on Twitter: @petro_francesco