LONDON • After years of economic crisis and political disarray, Europe appears to have regained a spring in its step.
At last week's European Union summit, the last of this year, leaders vied with each other in offering to boost their continent's military power. Flanked by soldiers in combat dress in order to give their summit an appropriate martial tone, leaders also inaugurated a landmark defence cooperation pact that pledges EU states to work more closely and spend money more effectively on defence projects, including the development of new weapons.
With those pesky British who always objected to such schemes now on their way out, the time has evidently come for Europe to become a global player. All this, quipped the EU President Donald Tusk, is "good news for our allies, and bad news for our enemies".
Perhaps. But the chances still are that the current pledges to reinvent Europe as a military power with the ability to project its influence around the world will translate into little. And that's not because Europe cannot do it, but largely due to the fact that there is still no consensus among Europeans about either the threats or the opportunities facing their continent.
Europe's problem is not that it lacks the means to be a global actor, but more than it has neither the ambition nor the vision.
There is no question that, when it comes to military affairs, the Europeans are not contributing their fair share to the defence of their continent, let alone to the stability of the world. At least in this respect, the Donald Trump administration in Washington is largely correct: The Europeans must and can do more, and the explicit undertaking which European governments made back in 2014 to devote at least 2 per cent of their gross domestic product to defence has yet to be fulfilled.
That is, indeed, an intolerable situation. As US Defence Secretary James Mattis rightly told European leaders recently: "Americans cannot care more for your children's future security than you do."
To make matters worse, Europeans are spending their defence money inefficiently, on different varieties of tanks and aircraft which are not interoperable between EU nations, and on too many territorial defence units which are largely useless.
The result is that, although the Europeans spend almost half of what the Americans spend on defence, they have nowhere near half of the military assets and, with the exception of Britain and France, are incapable of deploying troops outside their continent in a war-fighting capacity. Europe is the perfect example of an economic giant and a security pygmy.
All this is now supposed to change due to an initiative started by French President Emmanuel Macron. Entitled Permanent Structured Cooperation on Defence, or Pesco for short, the idea is that EU countries should join hands on specific projects boosting Europe's defences. These range from a Belgian-led effort to develop submarine drones to tackle mines at sea, the harmonisation of weapon systems, the elimination of other equipment shortages and right up to the creation of a German-led "crisis response operation centre" aimed at speeding up the deployment of troops to emergency situations.
A special European Defence Fund is also being created, to support such activities. Taken all together, the EU's foreign policy chief, Ms Federica Mogherini, now hails Pesco as a "historic decision that turns the EU into a credible security provider globally".
Alas, if only that was true. Mr Macron initially envisaged the creation of a Pesco structure reserved exclusively for EU countries which are truly able to provide meaningful military resources. But under pressure from other EU member-states, the French were ultimately forced to accept that every country which wanted could join, so the initiative is already heavily diluted, with countries piling in not because they want to do anything in particular, but because they fear that something would be done in their absence.
Furthermore, many of the projects to develop new European capabilities will take years if not decades to come to fruition. The grandly-named German proposal for the creation of a crisis response centre is actually nothing but a plan to undertake a "study" which, once completed and properly debated by EU governments, may eventually yield such a centre.
And the equally grandly-named European Defence Fund amounts to the provision of only €1.5 billion (S$2.37 billion), peanuts in the context of what Europe needs, and even this modest sum is yet to be approved by European governments. If this is "history" as Ms Mogherini claims, then it is one created by daydreaming.
To make matters worse, the Pesco initiative does nothing to address what will soon be one of Europe's biggest defence challenges: the departure of the British from the EU, an event which will deprive the union of one of its most military-capable member states. In theory, the newly-created Pesco will allow the United Kingdom to take part in future European military missions, but without giving London any decision-making powers.
Yet anyone who thinks that the British would ever send their soldiers to take part in an operation over which the UK government exercises no control needs his or her head examined.
More significantly, the current debate about capabilities is not accompanied by any effort to ascertain what Europe wishes to promote or defend. Is Europe keen to acquire new capabilities in order to defend itself against Russia? No - just about the only consensus which does exist on defence matters consists of a tacit agreement that containing the perceived Russian threat is a matter left to the US-led Nato, rather than just the Europeans.
So what else are the Europeans proposing to do? "We see that around the world there is a strong need for the EU to be active as a point of reference, as a player, as others are taking different directions," says Ms Mogherini, taking a swipe at President Trump's United States.
Yet in what way would Europe be a distinct "player" on the global stage? Berlin is closer in range to North Korea's nuclear missiles than Boston, but at no point did any European government come up with a novel idea of how to deal with the North Korean nuclear challenge. Nor did any European capital ever explain what the EU is seeking to do in order to enhance strategic stability elsewhere in Asia.
More gravely still, recent surveys of public opinion in Europe indicate that not only governments, but also the overwhelming majority of European voters have no strategic vision or aspirations for their continent.
A recent in-depth study of German attitudes to security questions conducted by the Korber Foundation, a respected think-tank, found out that over half of ordinary Germans opposed an increase in their government's defence spending despite the fact that Germany is Europe's wealthiest state, yet one of its lowest defence contributors.
The study also found that only 7 per cent of Germans wanted their country to get engaged in handling Asia's security problems and a plurality regarded President Trump as a greater threat to their country's foreign policy than either the North Korean regime or Mr Vladimir Putin's Russia. It is nonsense to suggest that, with a public like that, European governments could suddenly become global security players.
Given all these caveats, why should one waste any time examining Europe's latest defence efforts?
Essentially, for two reasons.
First, because the continent is moving towards sharing a greater burden in handling the world's security crises. EU governments are now deploying tens of thousands of soldiers to efforts to pacify Africa's Sahel region in order to prevent this area from becoming a hotbed of international terrorism. That is a far cry from the grand claims which Europe is making to become a global player, but is an indicator that the continent is shouldering greater responsibilities.
More importantly, Europe retains a major global presence, and therefore has the capabilities to do more. The EU remains, by far, the world's second-largest economy, and the world's largest trader of goods and services. And although media reports concentrate on China's attempt to buy European manufacturers and their technologies, a third of all the world's global foreign direct investment flows are generated by the EU. China's share is about 7 per cent.
In short, Europe is not at all the sclerotic continent heading to oblivion which many believe it to be, and although it is far from becoming a global power, Europe still retains many strategic options, should its leaders decide to translate words into deeds.
Admittedly, that is a big "if". But, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, Europeans often end up doing the right thing after exhausting all other possibilities.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2017, with the headline 'Europe's mixed martial ambitions'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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