EU Needs Vision and Leadership to Overcome Military Problems

Essays - February 6, 2024

The year 2024 found the European Union deeply divided over the war in the Gaza Strip and the collateral conflict in the Red Sea, unable to honour its pledges of military support for Ukraine, struggling with an energy crisis that has yet to be resolved and the pressure to meet its own climate targets. Added to all this is the rise of the far right, which is taking advantage of social tensions across the continent, and the looming danger from across the pond of Donald Trump’s return to power, who could carry out his threats to withdraw from NATO.

Contributing to the apparent bumpy ride are the disagreements between EU leaders on issues that need firm decisions and immediate, timely action. Some voices question whether the EU really has a long-term vision. And the answer seems to be ‘no’. Fearful that Donald Trump might re-install himself in the White House, and Europe, which in the past has opposed the concept of European strategic autonomy that Elysee Palace leader Emmanuel Macron has tried to impose, irritated that France wants to assume an increased role in coordinating European security, is now proposing the creation of a nuclear shield to protect the continent in the event of the US nuclear warheads failing. In all this context, the issue, sidestepped in recent years, of whether one of the major Western powers should take the lead is again being raised, and the most natural option would be Germany, Europe’s largest economy. But even more than former Chancellor Angela Merkel, who would have been seen in this position a few years ago, her successor, Olaf Scholz, is even more reluctant to take on such a role.

The Gaza conflict visibly dividing the EU, and how Macron deviated from the common line

Never in its history has the EU been so divided as on Middle East issues.  While one side wanted to insist on Israel’s right to defend itself, the other wanted to stress the importance of the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. Immediately after the Hamas attacks on the 7th of October, the commissioner for neighbourhood and enlargement, Oliver Varhelyi, announced that financial support to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) would be suspended. But the statement was denied the next day because Varhelyi had not consulted anyone, not even his colleagues in the commission, let alone member states, who have the final say in foreign policy. Or such a decision, in a context where the EU is the main donor to the UNRWA budget, would have had huge, disastrous consequences for the situation of Palestinian refugees, who, without the support of this agency, would have had no other option but to migrate. In the end, the heads of state took a decision – to everyone’s satisfaction – they recognised Israel’s right to defend itself, but they did not suspend funding, but merely announced a reassessment of the support mechanism. This, after the Commission had already tripled it.

And the Babylon around the subject is not over. After the EU shied away from calling for a truce between Israel and Hamas, President Macron twisted himself into a corner and called for just that, short pauses followed by a lasting truce. The reason: it is not possible to destroy the Hamas terrorist organisation once and for all, as Israel has proposed, and even if it were, the war would last ten years. Although the statement was shocking – no one has officially questioned this goal – Macron’s proposals have had little echo. However, it should be noted that some countries, such as Belgium and Spain, have shown more sympathy for the Palestinian cause than, for example, Germany.

On the Red Sea crisis and Europe’s aspirations as a major non-involved global player

The Red Sea became, immediately after the outbreak of the Gaza conflict, the theatre of fighting between militants of another terrorist organisation, the Houthis, and everything that moves in those waters. The US cited threats to world trade and free navigation and retaliated in an operation called Prosperity Guardian. They were joined by Britain.  The EU has yet to take a decision, but is planning an operation of its own. Here too, reactions from member states have been mixed. The Netherlands offered practical assistance, Germany – support in a written statement, Belgium offered to send a frigate. France, Spain and Italy withdrew. The delay in Brussels taking a decision is all the more difficult to understand given that the EU has a very important stake in the Red Sea: about 40% of trade with the Middle East and Asia is through the Suez Strait.

European leaders fear Russia will not stop in Ukraine, but fail to support it sufficiently

Russia seems to be slowly gaining ground in Ukraine, and the government in Kiev is desperate because it is running out of ammunition and the state treasury is empty. President Volodimir Zelenski is now counting more than ever on increased support from Europe, as that from across the Atlantic has been dwindling significantly recently. But European countries – especially Germany, which has provided the most aid to Ukraine after the US – have grown weary. Chancellor Scholz stressed that aid to Ukraine cannot depend solely on Germany and called for more countries to play an active role in providing it. This comes at a time when the EU only managed to deliver just over 50% of the ammunition it promised Ukraine last year, being “short” by some 500,000 shells. The arms industry is working hard to increase its production capacity, but much of the ammunition to be produced in 2024 will be exported to third countries and will not reach Ukraine, AFP quoted a senior official in Brussels as saying. As for the money promised to Ukraine, it was finally resolved after months of EU bloc heads of state waiting for Budapest leader Viktor Orban, branded as Moscow’s “Trojan horse inside the EU”, to come to his senses and vote for the promised €50 billion in support. Slovakia’s newly-appointed prime minister, Robert Fico, briefly joined Orban in questioning the country’s agreement to continue supporting Ukraine, but eventually dropped his opposition. And he allowed the Slovak arms industry to export to Ukraine. How European leaders finally managed to trick Viktor Orban into voting, only they know, but the important thing is that in the end, in the EU Council, the matter was resolved. It is not only Ukraine that needs peace. In a scenario where the war drags on or Russia wins, it won’t stop in Ukraine, military analysts say.

European nuclear shield without warheads and how Germany accepts Macron’s plans out of fear of Trump

Without NATO, without a common defence (and even their own armies – most countries have given them up in recent decades) – defending the borders from a Russian invasion is out of the question at this point. The subject of creating an ‘EU army’, which has been discussed for the past 10-15 years, has been sidestepped on the pretext that countries have exclusive defence powers that they are unwilling to cede to Brussels. Even if a serious discussion had been opened, the debates and procedures would have taken more than a decade and a half. Far from garnering support, Macron has been ignored and even criticised for his plan for “strategic autonomy” and EU military sovereignty being interpreted as an intention to end US military presence and dominance in Europe. Fearing Trump’s return to the helm, Germany – which has vehemently opposed such plans – has come up with a proposal to create a nuclear umbrella to protect Europe. Only two countries in Europe have nuclear weapons and only one is in the EU: Britain and France. Acknowledging that there is no time for long-term plans, German politician Manfred Weber admitted that Macron’s plans should be revisited. He said it was time to internationalise the “force frappe”, the name under which the triad of French air, land and sea nuclear forces is known, and that dialogue should be reopened “with friends” in the UK.

How can the EU overcome all these problems? It needs vision, but only strong leadership can provide that.