30 January 2019

After Aachen: France, Germany and European security

By James Rogers and Robert Clark

The signing of the Aachen Treaty by President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel last Tuesday was hailed as the latest move to bind France and Germany together, setting the stage for the rebirth of European confidence after years of stagnation.

Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, declared warily: “Today Europe needs a revival of faith in the meaning of solidarity and unity, and I want to believe that enhanced Franco-German cooperation will serve this objective.”

France and Germany believe they are the natural leaders of the European Union, a belief that is only likely to grow after the United Kingdom leaves and as the United States focuses more on East Asia. Indeed, Angela Merkel has already declared that Britain and America have become unreliable and that Europeans can no longer “completely depend” on them. Consequently, she and the French president have both argued that the time is ripe for the creation of a “European army”.

However, such ideas should be taken with a pinch of salt. This is because the generation of armed forces of sufficient strength to project power beyond the margins of the European continent (without British or American assistance) would require a significant uplift in French and German military spending.

Both Germany and France are likely to fail to meet their 2014 NATO commitment to increase defence spending towards 2 per cent of GDP by 2024. On current projections, Germany will fail to reach even 1.5 per cent, while France will only reach the target by 2025, and only then if the next government honours the commitment of the existing one.

It is therefore no surprise that Germany’s Bundeswehr has been plagued in recent years by numerous military difficulties. A recent report by a German parliamentary commission highlighted that no submarines or transport aircraft were available for deployment in 2018, and that defence spending was a mere 1.2 per cent of GDP – inadequate even to maintain existing assets.

While France compares more favourably, it has also been beset by an array of problems. A report in 2017 concluded that more than half of French military aircraft were unable to fly, a problem highlighted by the French request for the UK to deploy three Chinook transport helicopters and 90 personnel in July last year in support of its mission in Mali.

Meanwhile, UK defence spending is the second largest in NATO and has been consistently maintained above the 2 per cent of GDP threshold. Britain is also the leading contributor to NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Eastern Europe, and the only European power to possess an array of potential points of control in the Middle East.

The British Armed Forces have sovereign bases in Cyprus, which include a large RAF contingent in addition to an infantry garrison, with other long-term facilities in al-Minhad in the United Arab Emirates, Jufair in Bahrain, and Duqm in Oman. Effectively forming a triangular West-East-South military presence across the Arabian Peninsula, these facilities provide the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force with a unique geostrategic reach.

This capability was recently employed by the British Armed Forces in Oman during exercise Saif Sareea 3, the largest military exercise in the region for 17 years, demonstrating a level of interoperability with a regional ally that France or Germany simply cannot match. It is this power projection which showcases the UK as a global military power, dethroning those in Europe (and Britain itself) who have promoted a narrative of ‘British decline’ in recent years.

So without British support, any European attempt to forge military capabilities is likely to fail. And without further spending increases, any calls for a “European army” are little more than a French and German deflection tactic to draw attention away from the fact that neither are unwilling to meet their NATO spending commitments.

Consequently, if they want to enhance European strategic capacity, the leaders of France and Germany would do well to cease with their strategic babble, cooperate with the UK and honour their commitments and spend more on defence.

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James Rogers is Director of the Global Britain Programme at the Henry Jackson Society. Robert Clark is a postgraduate at King’s College, London and a former research assistant at the Henry Jackson Society.