Will Macron push through rebirth of European defence?

Ukraine war puts focus on future of EU security ahead of Versailles summit

French President Emmanuel Macron will host EU leaders for a summit at the Palace of Versailles this week. AFP
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French President Emmanuel Macron will host European leaders at the Palace of Versailles this week looking to build on an almost unprecedented show of unity over Russia's invasion of Ukraine to push for deeper defence integration in the EU.

A flurry of diplomacy described by European Council chief as the moment "the Europe of defence was born" saw Germany lift a ban on weapons exports, Sweden and Finland ship arms to Ukraine and even non-EU member Switzerland impose sanctions and curb Russia’s access to its banks.

The “surge of unity” described by Mr Michel delighted senior officials who have long dreamt of what they call European “strategic autonomy”, an idea long championed by Mr Macron and others.

Mr Macron, who holds the EU’s rotating presidency, is expected to pitch deeper military cooperation in Versailles after saying that "our European defence needs to enter a new phase … we can no longer depend on others".

But calls for a more autonomous Europe are bound to run into scepticism from eastern countries who see American power as their key protector against Russia.

Latvia and Lithuania were among the countries to make that point at a summit last year, when calls for EU autonomy surfaced after the US-led withdrawal from Afghanistan and the diplomatic controversy around the Aukus pact.

Concerns about the Russian threat on the eastern flank have only multiplied since President Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in what western leaders have described as an attempt to restore a sphere of influence.

US troops have been deployed to Poland and Baltic states to shore up the security of those countries, with President Joe Biden promising to “defend every inch of Nato territory with the full force of American power”.

“This current crisis has just shown to everyone the centrality of the US to European security,” said Ed Arnold, a defence expert at the Rusi think tank and former strategy consultant.

“In certain areas at the moment, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, strategic lift, transport and air-to-air refuelling, the Europeans just do not have the capability so they are wholly reliant on the US.”

The EU and Nato are not the only shows in town. The UK leads a so-called Joint Expeditionary Force with Baltic and Nordic allies and the Netherlands, a group which said it plans to “develop our cooperation by land, sea and air even further” after Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

Mr Macron, in turn, is positioning himself as a key leader in Europe after Britain left the EU and Germany’s dominant former chancellor Angela Merkel retired.

His efforts on this front, including his frequent calls with Mr Putin, are partly designed for domestic consumption as Mr Macron fights for re-election, said Dr Paul Smith, a French politics expert at the University of Nottingham.

“You have to look like a statesman or woman,” said Dr Smith. “The idea of keeping the other guy on the end of the phone for an hour — that’s kind of working in his favour.

“The French know that when they are electing a president, they are electing a person that makes foreign policy. People will not want instability and a change of leadership.”

The invasion comes at a time when both Nato and the EU are drawing up new strategic blueprints for the next decade.

The EU’s so-called strategic compass was expected to be unveiled in the coming months, although it relies on a threat analysis drawn up in November 2020 and there are suggestions that a draft text may need to be rewritten.

One draft presented to the European Parliament last year called for the establishment of a rapid-reaction force to replace the EU’s current “battle groups”, rotating units that were introduced in 2007 but have never been used.

Individual countries are also increasing defence spending in response to the war in Ukraine, including Poland and Germany, which is planning a one-off 100 billion euro ($109bn) investment in its military.

But such statements are nothing new, said Mr Arnold, and much of Germany’s money will go merely on bringing currently substandard equipment up to scratch.

Nato allies committed to the principle of spending two per cent of GDP on defence after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. But some countries, notably including Germany, have not met the target.

“We have been here before,” said Mr Arnold. “You have to divorce the political statements from the actual reality of what is happening.

“Since the end of the Cold War, the EU side of defence has always talked quite an ambitious game but then failed to back it up with the money and then also the prioritisation and the resourcing that underpins that.”

Updated: March 08, 2022, 1:14 PM