The EU must add “hard power” to its leading global role in “soft power” was the message as top European Commission officials appeared in Prague alongside Czech and Slovak leaders on June 9 to outline a new vision for an EU defence union.
The Defence and Security Conference Prague was used by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and cohorts to explain the EU defence fund that the commission threw its weight behind two days previously. The officials were keen to stress that the move towards finally putting together a defence alliance to complement efforts at accelerating economic and political union was a response to terrorism.
They also insisted at every opportunity that it is not a response to the doubts that US President Donald Trump has cast over the reliability of Nato’s defence of Europe, nor the forthcoming exit of the UK – one of two nuclear powers in the EU– from the bloc.
“It’s clear there’s no rivalry with Nato, and no duplication, when it comes to EU proposals on defence,” Juncker repeated almost ad infinitum.
The 27 dwarves
At a time of increasingly regular terror attacks, the move towards stiffening defence and security is clearly also part of efforts in Brussels to push back populism and increase its own standing. The EU is consistently bashed by critics for being undemocratic and failing to respond to the demands of citizens.
"The EU must not be an economic giant but a security dwarf," recited Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek.
Juncker, commission foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and others also sought to offer the right soundbites in response.
"The protection of Europe can no longer be outsourced," announced Juncker. The phrase was repeated several times through the day.
The cynical might call it a PR stunt, and indeed the virtual absence of any direct mention of Russia as a threat – save for talk of “Hybrid war” – may support that to some extent.
Terror was the star of the show. Attacks in London, Paris and Berlin have taken over the headlines – and are the main grist to the mill of the Eurosceptic movements that Brussels is fighting against. Russia is a far less clear cut issue, and targeting its aggression is not a big seller amongst many populist movements around Europe.
The split on Russia is nowhere more obvious than in Visegrad. It was notable that officials from Poland – the most hawkish of all EU states on Russia – and Hungary, one of the closest to Moscow, were nowhere to be seen. The Czechs and Slovaks have supported the Western line on Russia, but domestic policy towards Russia remains somewhat ambiguous.
Still, in a region that stresses national sovereignty over political and social issues, bolstering defence and security is one of the few topics almost guaranteed to win favour for the EU.
Despite the ongoing spat regarding migrant quotas, on which the European Commission chief spoke separately during his trip with Zaoralek, Juncker was keen to play up unity, at least with parts of Visegrad.
“Prague’s role in setting this conference up shows that the country wants to take on the responsibilities of EU membership,” he said. I’ve been shown many times how much the Czech Republic wants to be part of this initiative, while some founding member states are not taking part. The Czech role in the EU defence initiative shows that rumours of a multi-speed EU are fake news.”
However, others hinted that concern over the increasing sway of the Franco-German front persists in Visegrad, not least because the idea of defence and security integration is their's.
"There remains a risk that common security could prove exclusive to certain states,” warned Zaoralek, “with others left on the margins. EU defence plans must be inclusive.”
Bread and butter
The European Commission on June 6 announced support for Franco-German plans to integrate European military forces, as well as its defence industries. The EU executive pledged to fund and coordinate a build up of European forces that have been reduced in the years of Nato due to the heavy reliance of the alliance on US capabilities and leadership. It hopes to have up to €5.5bn per year coming in to a common defence fund by 2020 should member states play ball.
Europe increasingly feels that the tide has now turned, however. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent statement that Europe can no longer rely on the US stunned many, but the message has clearly been understood for some time in Brussels. Still, Juncker did his best to press home the point that he had made defence a priority as he took over as head of the commission in 2014.
Nato Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller sought to back him up, noting that “Crimea and the emergence of Isis happened around the same time. Nothing can be put at the door of events in 2016,” she insisted. Clearly aware of where she was, the Nato official also claimed that recent deployments in Poland and the Baltic states – agreed before Trump took office – "prove the bond between Nato and Europe".
Sobotka, who has plotted a path for his country to raise defence spending to 1.4% of GDP by 2020 despite being likely to lose the PM’s chair in October, also joined the cause. The Czech Republic respects its Nato obligations and the alliance should continue to provide territorial defence in the EU,” he said. “Our work in stabilising the Middle East or Africa is no competition to Nato.”
Yet it is clear that Trump’s aggressive attitude towards the Nato member states over their failure to spend the agreed 2% of GDP on defence, and especially his failure to emphasise common defence, has been a wake up call for the EU. Brexit has only added to the insecurity, pushing Brussels to raise its game in proving that it remains relevant in the face of the terror threat and Russian challenge.
The EU is proud of its soft power credentials, and it was noted at the conference that more still could be done to promote stability in regions such as the Middle East and Africa. However, the new challenges in global security, and subsequent rise of populism, has persuaded the bloc that it needs to up its game when it comes to military might.
“The security agenda is clear,” Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak told the audience. “Citizens expect us to do more to protect them. Military capability is the bread and butter of security.”
“The EU is very often weak in the face of global problems, but people are demanding an immediate response to security,” added Zaoralek. “If we fail there is a very real danger to the stability of our states.”