BY: Paolo Mauri
Translated BY: Costantino Ceoldo
PEJOURNAL – The need to adopt a common defense and foreign policy has strongly returned to the agenda of the European Union. The triggering cause, or if we want “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, was the unilateral management by the United States of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which essentially excluded the Allies belonging to NATO from the decision-making processes of the Kabul evacuation operation.
The prodromes of this renewed need had been advanced, as we well know, by French President Emmanuel Macron, who earlier this year stated that Europe needed “strategic autonomy” in a very particular forum: the Atlantic Council’s online forum.
That gesture, now, it is possible to indicate it as the real turning point for the Union’s policy in the field of Defense: since that day in February, in fact, the issue has become increasingly important within the EU up to the events in August, which in turn led to the speech of the President of the European Commission Ursula von Der Leyen in mid-September in which the first guidelines were identified for providing the Union with a shared military instrument, identified in a first Expeditionary Force, a first responders force, of mixed composition and fully communitarian command, of the consistency of a reinforced brigade.
A common defense means a common foreign policy
Having a common defense, however, first of all means having a common industrial base and a common foreign policy. As regards the first, there are mechanisms that can be used to systematize the military procurement of the countries of the Union: the OCCAR, Organization Conjointe de Coopération en matière d’Armement, the European Defense Agency , the PESCO, Permanent Structured Cooperation, which was joined by the recent European Defense Fund (EDF) .
As regards the second, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, which reports to the Council of the EU, does not yet assume that unitary role of representing all the adhering countries, which, as a logical, pursue their own policies in foreign affairs.
The main problem here is the one that is also found in NATO: bringing together the strategic visions in foreign policy (and therefore also in Defense) of a large number of countries is very difficult, almost impossible. The example of the Atlantic Alliance is fitting: among its 30 members there are not the same perceptions of a threat to their own security, with Eastern European countries looking with concern at Russia and the Mediterranean ones more focused on the “Southern Front”. Now we need to imagine, looking at the map of the EU, the revival of the same mechanism but without a “master” like the United States who, in the last resort, decides what to do.
New and old challenges
There are also geopolitical challenges that require the EU to become a protagonist: one that is geographically closer, given by the substantial US disengagement in the area that goes from Morocco to Afghanistan, while maintaining a strong diplomatic ancestry and above all by tying those countries to itself through the sale of arms, and a more distant one, given by the tensions in the Indo-Pacific linked to the assertiveness and expansionism of China, supported, for mere political contingencies, by Russia – the recent words of Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov on Taiwan  in this sense are illuminating.
It is interesting, in order to better understand how the EU is assuming greater responsibility towards foreign policy, to dwell precisely on the Indo-Pacific front, given the now almost stable presence of EU missions in our neighborhood, a sign that in Brussels – and even more in Paris – the question of the security of the Mena area has been taken on board.
Also, in the speech of President von Der Leyen in September, we talked about the definition of what will be a European Indo-Pacific strategy to be more present and active in that fundamental theater that has long since become the fulcrum of global geopolitics.
Even earlier, in June, it was the Japanese defense minister himself who requested a greater EU presence in that sector to counter China: on the basis of the strategic partnership agreement and the EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Japan intends to further develop its relations with the Union, now seen as a strategic partner to jointly establish peace, security and stability in the area and beyond.
Minister Nobuo Kishi recalled on that occasion how this military cooperation was already a reality, taking for example the anti-piracy activity off the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden or the exercises held with individual EU countries in the Asian region, such as for example those carried out with France and the Netherlands.
Limits and knots
There are limits and knots to be solved so that the Union of 27 can put in place Community strategies for independent defense and foreign policy. From the point of view of procurement, and therefore also of industrial cooperation, we often do not participate in European mechanisms, preferring to “do it yourself”.
However, we report some emblematic examples of a trend well rooted in the EU: the FREMM frigates, a jewel and pride of national shipbuilding, are the result of an OCCAR program but, ultimately, it is a bilateral collaboration between France and Italy; Il MALE RPAS, the program for the new European UAV, is struggling to take off with its participants (Spain, Germany, Italy and France) who push the project in different directions, and therefore reopening the doors of the European market to US products (Mq-9 Reaper in the lead).
We could continue talking about the Airbus A-400, a “badly born” aircraft that is showing all its limitations deriving from a design approach that is too “civil” for a military environment (see handling loads).
In short, although there is, and often works, the will to put European industrial capabilities into a system, there is often a lack of a real single “direction”, which would be obtainable with a – no longer postponable – rationalization of tasks within the EU: in other words, a sectoralization where each State can contribute with its own know-how without overlapping. Something that will be very difficult to achieve.
As for the political sphere, if possible, the road is even more uphill: France is, almost belligerently, taking advantage of the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU to try to become the leading country of the Union’s foreign policy.
More than the question of the Shortfin Barracuda submarines, whose cancellation by Australia has generated lukewarm reactions in Brussels, which considers it a purely French question – a decision that is acceptable from a purely pragmatic point of view, but questionable from a political one – it is good to remember the one linked to the armed anti-terrorism intervention in the Sahel: the Elysée, which is putting an end to its Barkhane mission, is trying to make Task Force Takuba a fully-fledged EU mission; succeeding, if we look at the countries participating in it.
Paris, having secured the support of Berlin, is definitely aiming at hegemony within the EU, and in Rome an alarm bell should sound, because often French interests in our enlarged Mediterranean do not correspond at all to ours (see case of Libya / Turkey).
Tempus fugit, and with the United States looking for partners to entrust with dossiers that they do not want (and can) deal with anymore, having to think of an increasingly hot Indo-Pacific one, Italy should, taking advantage of the opportunity given by the will of the EU to have a common defense, not to miss the opportunities given by contingencies (see Algeria) to propose oneself, not as an alternative to France, but as its collaborator, if only to moderate its ambitions.
NATO / EU: non-overlapping collaboration
The EU’s relationship with NATO represents both an obstacle and an opportunity. First of all, in the EU agenda we find the definition of a new Strategic Compass, but a reorganization of relations with the Alliance is also envisaged, which will lead to a new political declaration to be issued before the June 2022 summit. Moreover, a remodeling between the two supranational bodies is necessary: a clear separation of tasks – at least in this embryonic phase of EU defense – to avoid useless, costly and counterproductive “doubling” of commands, missions, tools, etc.
In particular, it is time to redefine transatlantic relations with a constructive approach, to separate areas and spheres of action, without the bright tones used, at times, by France. In this sense, if Italy and Germany were able to have a common line, they would find fertile ground to start discussions on positions useful to the Union thanks to the particular relations they have with the United States.
In particular Italy, taking advantage of this opportunity, should try to propose a new secretary general of the Alliance more attentive to the Southern Front, therefore to be sought in the Mediterranean countries, so that the same strategic vision can be shared more between the EU and NATO and avoid that military and financial resources are distributed much more on the Eastern Front to accommodate the “russophobia” (sometimes justified) of the more eastern countries.
“Encounter but not clash”, to defuse the worries, which know of anathema, of the current secretary of the Alliance, Jens Stoltenberg, and to finally have a start of strategic autonomy that would allow to lay the foundations for a common foreign policy, which, as we have already said, it will be difficult to obtain but not impossible, and which in turn would provide the basis for a true common defense and a future (distant) European army.
Original column by Paolo Mauri: