By Keiko Iizuka / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Political WriterMUNICH — In the year following the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” administration, European security policy has faced turning points over issues including how to tackle Brexit, Britain’s exit from the European Union.
The key to understanding the situation is the argument over how to bring about “self-reliant defense,” transforming the current European defense system, led by the United States and Britain, into one in which Germany and France are expected to lead. With the emerging threat of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, in addition to lingering problems with Russia and the Middle East, security in Europe faces more complicated new issues than ever before.
Munich Security Conference
Two female defense ministers, Florence Parly of France and Ursula von der Leyen of Germany, opened the discussion of the Munich Security Conference, which began Feb. 16 and lasted for three days. Hosted by private entities, the conference has become the main opportunity to discuss and convey issues of diplomacy and security, attracting many leaders and ministers mainly from Europe, the United States and the Middle East. This year, Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono participated in the conference and emphasized the need to strengthen pressure on North Korea.
The main theme of this year’s conference was the “self-reliant defense” of Europe. Von der Leyen made a point by saying: “We want to enable Europe to carry more weight in terms of military power. So that Europe can become more independent and self-reliant.” Parly also favored the idea.
PESCO: Shaping the idea
The idea had already led the EU to agree to establishing the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in December. Under PESCO, member states will enhance military capabilities through measures such as joint training, joint development and procurement of weaponry, among others. A fund will be established to cover the common budget under the PESCO framework.
Out of the 28 EU member states, 25 countries, including Germany and France, will join PESCO. As of December, Denmark and Malta, in addition to Britain, had chosen not to take part.
Ideas of establishing a common European defense system have surfaced since World War II, but have not yet been realized. Differences among nations in military capabilities and budget scale, as well as differing opinions over policy obligations, have blocked such initiatives.
In the 1970s under the Cold War, there was concern over “decoupling” in Europe, fears that the United States would abandon its defense policies for Europe, which was facing the Soviet Union’s deployment of Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF). Western Europe wanted the United States to commit to European defense, and the United States resolved the issue by deploying its own INF to Europe as a countermeasure. The result was contrary to the current ideas of a self-reliant defense of Europe.
One reason why such moves to establish European self-reliant defense were accelerated is frustration over the Trump administration’s inconsistent policies toward European defense. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last May: “The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over.”
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is an alliance led by the United States. While its member states are asked to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, as of 2016 only four European countries met this target: Britain, Greece, Estonia and Poland.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said at a NATO meeting in February last year: “America will meet its responsibilities, but if your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defense.” The Trump administration is especially asking Germany to lead efforts to enhance European defense.
Britain, on the other hand, has always emphasized the importance of NATO and has been reluctant to establish self-reliant military capabilities for Europe. It can be said that moves toward Brexit have triggered the ongoing discussions without Britain over how to integrate European defense.
However, an unexpected backlash against PESCO led by Germany and France surfaced at the Munich conference.
The most striking statement was made by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg of Norway. While welcoming the EU’s efforts in this regard, Stoltenberg also warned that there is a “risk of weakening the transatlantic bond, the risk of duplicating what NATO is already doing” and declared, “The reality is the European Union cannot protect Europe by itself.”
He also said, “after Brexit, 80 percent of NATO’s defense spending will come from non-EU allies,” pointing out the reality that a large portion of the current spending comes from the United States and Britain. Stoltenberg’s remarks may have been influenced by the fact that although Norway is a member state of NATO, it has not joined the EU.
The NATO top official’s remarks can be said to essentially mirror the true intentions of the United States. A German security expert at the conference was surprised and said, “The U.S. once welcomed the PESCO last November.”
Under the PESCO initiative, member states will jointly develop weaponry, and The New York Times reported there is a cautious view against a rise of protectionism in European defense industries.
British Gen. Sir Richard Shirreff, who served as NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander until 2014, criticized PESCO as an unrealistic idea, to The Yomiuri Shimbun.
“PESCO sounds like a political fantasy. I’ve also been a professional soldier and know what soldiering means. The sort of integration happening in terms of forming an European Army is fantasy land. I cannot see France giving up sovereign control of its armed forces to a European Commission, unless there is a United States of Europe. I don’t see it ever going to happen.”
With nuclear strategy as its foundation, NATO is a military alliance that embraces a clear goal of collective defense. While PESCO will not infringe on NATO’s foundation, many member states have joined PESCO. With each country having limits in defense spending, how to make the most of their budgets for both NATO and PESCO will be a core issue determining the success of the PESCO initiative.
North Korean threat
At the conference this year, participants discussed North Korea’s nuclear and missile issues at various meetings. Perceptions appeared to have changed toward the North, which is geographically distant from Europe.
The primary reason is the rapid extension of Pyongyang’s missile range last year. People agree with some analyses that the range exceeded 10,000 kilometers, which put Europe within its reach.
An attendee from Bulgaria expressed anxiety about the limits on nonproliferation policy supported by the international community.
“When it comes to nuclear threats, it has been about those of Russia and the Middle East. North Korea is added to the list. Sanctions and diplomatic efforts over North Korean issues have brought no tangible outcome,” the person said.
Dan Smith, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden, summarized the conference as follows: “The North Korean issue was the new major theme of this year. A seismic shift, which we should not overlook, has been incrementally taking place in global security. That is, new multiple crises are happening, including the inauguration of the Trump administration, Brexit, the North’s provocative actions and others. It remains unpredictable to tell how the Trump administration manages; therefore, the issue of European self-reliance in its defense would continue to be controversial.”