The Donald Trump era may be coming to an end. But European Union ministers meeting this week to discuss the future of the continent’s defence will say the lesson has been learned: Europe needs to be strong enough to fight on its own.
EU foreign and defence ministers meeting by teleconference on Thursday and Friday will receive the bloc’s first annual report on joint defence capabilities, expected to serve as the basis for a French-led, post-Brexit, post-Trump effort to turn the EU into a stand-alone military power.
President-elect Joe Biden will halt his predecessor’s confrontational rhetoric towards allies, but he is not going to alter the underlying U.S. message that Europe needs to contribute more to its own defence, European diplomats say.
“We aren’t in the old status quo, where we can pretend that the Donald Trump presidency never existed and the world was the same as four years ago,” a French diplomat said.
An EU official said Biden’s victory was “a call to Europe to keep building a common EU defence, to be a useful and a strong ally, also for the NATO alliance.”
The EU has been working since December 2017 to develop more firepower independently of the United States. The effort has been driven mainly by France, the EU’s remaining major military power after Brexit.
During Britain’s membership, London tended to resist a major military role for the EU, putting an emphasis instead on NATO as the main forum for European defence. Its exit gives Paris an opportunity to push longstanding ambitions for a bigger EU role in defence, with more cautious support from Berlin.
“The United States will only respect us as allies if we are serious about our own position, and if we have our own sovereignty regarding our defence,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a magazine interview on Sunday.
Trump was openly hostile to NATO, routinely criticising European countries for spending too little on defence and describing allies that spend less than 2% of national output as “delinquent”. But previous U.S. administrations also called on Europe to spend more.
In a joint column for European and U.S. media on Monday, the French and German foreign ministers said they were committed to “make the transatlantic partnership more balanced”.
The EU’s Coordinated Annual Review on Defence is expected to identify a lack of drone technology, ageing aircraft and duplication of weaponry across EU members.
The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell told EU ambassadors privately late last week that the EU needs to “practice the language of power, not just speak it”.
While the EU is already at work on joint projects and will put aside 8 billion euros ($9.46 billion) from next year for a weapons development fund, the bloc needs at least a decade to have any military independence from Washington, experts say.
Differences between France and Germany are also emerging, with Berlin seen as more sceptical of initiatives outside of NATO. Germany’s Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said Europeans cannot hope to replace the U.S. defensive nuclear weapons system.
France, meanwhile, has been waging war in northwest Africa’s Sahel region for several years in what it sees as an operation to defend Europe’s southern flank from Islamist extremism. It has so far had only limited success persuading other European countries to join the mission.