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Macron's 'strategic autonomy' will not happen anytime soon

Macron's 'strategic autonomy' will not happen anytime soon
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French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronMacron urges US, EU to share vaccine doses Biden to champion alliances, democracy as he meets with foreign partners Overnight Defense: NATO expanding troops in Iraq MORE lately has been touting his vision of what he terms Europe’s “strategic autonomy.” Insisting that he is not advocating a chasm inside the NATO alliance, he has argued that for Europe truly to be “a common and relevant” partner to the United States, it must ramp up its common defense capacity. Indeed, he asserts that it is in America’s interest that its NATO partners do more together on “a European scale.”

In the past, Macron adds, the United States was “the only one in charge.” Burden-sharing was unequal, while the U.S. dominated trade in defense equipment. This arrangement, in his view, ultimately has been “lose-lose.” Europe must be more in charge of its neighborhoods, which includes the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, he points out that Europe has done little to prevent Turkey’s involvement in Libya, despite its being a NATO ally. 

Moreover, when the Trump administration abandoned the Syrian Kurds and did not react to Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria, the European allies did not protest that Turkey had not bothered to consult with NATO prior to its action and took no account of the presence of NATO forces in the area. Such weakness, he emphasizes, can be remedied only if Europe works as a unit to upgrade its military capabilities.

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Macron’s exhortations are a 21st-century version of Charles de Gaulle’s desire to create a European defense pillar separate from, but nominally alongside, that of the United States. And just as the European allies suspected de Gaulle’s vision to be a veiled attempt to assert French primacy in Europe, so are some European capitals, notably Berlin, not entirely enthusiastic supporters of Macron’s proposals.

Europe actually has made considerable progress toward ramping up its defense capabilities, notably since the 2014 Wales summit, in which the 28 NATO allies committed themselves to allot 2 percent of their budgets to defense expenditure by 2024. By 2020, the European allies and Canada had spent an additional $130 billion on their defense programs. Moreover, nine countries reached the 2 percent goal by 2019 and all but three of the NATO allies increased their defense spending in real terms. In addition, 16 of America's 28 NATO allies met an additional commitment to invest 20 percent of their defense spending on major new capabilities.

Still, $130 billion represents less than a third of the total that was expected to be spent by 2024. And that was before all countries began to feel the impact of COVID-19.

The pandemic already has taken a toll on the European Union’s newly unveiled the European Defense Fund (EDF). An outgrowth of the Preparatory Action on Defense Research (PADR) that the EU created in 2017, the EDF was meant to finance technology projects such as artificial intelligence for border detection, lasers, railguns and drones and that would involve at least three member states. Funding for the PADR was miniscule, totaling only 90 million euros. 

Initial funding for the EDF was meant to be on a much grander scale: a total €13 billion over the 2021-2027 EU budget cycle. Yet, in May 2020, the European Commission was forced to scale back the proposed EDF budget to €8.1 billion and the final number approved in July was only €7 billion, representing almost a 40 percent reduction from the original plan. On the other hand, the EU created a €750 billion COVID-19 recovery fund, an expenditure it had not anticipated 18 months ago.

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The pandemic has had other immediate effects. The allies were forced to cancel the 2020 version of the U.S.-led Defender Europe, a major exercise that in many was a reprise of the Cold War REFORGER exercises. Having stepped up the frequency and sophistication of its exercises in the past few years, NATO now must consider how to maintain readiness as long as COVID-19 is not eradicated.

Moreover, just as the EU has reallocated funds to fight the pandemic, it is likely that individual European states will do the same. With the disappearance of the virus nowhere in sight, and with the threat of new variants appearing, it is highly doubtful that those allies that have not met the 2 percent spending commitment can do so in the next three years. Indeed, those that have met that threshold may find it exceedingly difficult to maintain it.

Europe has flirted with the vision of a common defense ever since the 1954 defeat of a proposal for a European Defense Community in, of all places, the French National Assembly. It does not appear that the allies will get much closer to realizing that vision anytime soon. The fates are not smiling kindly on President Macron’s plans; “strategic autonomy” will remain little more than a pious hope for some time to come.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.