ROME – European officials who have been pushing for a beefed-up, better-integrated EU defense capability may have been handed the best argument they could have wished for with the election of Donald Trump.
During campaigning before his shock win this month, Trump warned that if elected he would not defend countries in Europe that failed to spend enough on defense — a move which would end decades of US underwriting of Europe’s security.
For European officials, Trump’s views were the second good reason this year for the continent to collaborate on military matters.
After years of vetoing plans for better integrated European defense, the UK voted to leave the Union earlier this year, immediately spurring countries like France, Germany and Italy to plot the EU military capability they had long dreamed of.
"Europe cannot blink after Brexit, after the election of Donald Trump with all the questions being raised,” said French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, as European defense and foreign ministers gathered on Nov. 14.
“Europe must stand together more, be more active and go more on the offensive even if it is just to protect itself,” he said.
“America’s new leadership is an alarm call to Europe, waking it up and making it realize it cannot rely on US support indefinitely and should live up to its ambitions,” said retired Gen. Vincenzo Camporini, a former Italian chief of staff who is now vice president and security and defense analyst with the IAI think tank in Rome.
“Trump might convince our leaders that they need a common foreign policy and the military instruments to support it,” said Camporini.
At their meeting on Nov. 14, EU ministers approved a new document on defense which the Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, called “a qualitative leap in the European Union's security and defense.”
The new document reasserts the idea of using the EU’s 1,500-strong Battlegroups — already set up, but never used — for rapid deployments.
But it also calls for moves to “reinforce their modularity.”
“Let’s say we have a training mission in Africa which faces security constraints,” said an EU source. “Can we take a unit from a Battlegroup to help out? Until now, you would have to take the whole Battlegroup or nothing — hence the idea of modularity.”
European officials have talked of setting up a permanent military EU HQ, but the document draws the line at “a permanent operational planning and conduct capability at the strategic level for non-executive military missions,” adding that any structure would avoid “unnecessary duplication with NATO.”
"It's not about a European army, it's not about creating a new European Union SHAPE-style headquarters," Mogherini said after the meeting.
The EU source pointed out that the EU already had numerous military HQs for the missions it has run to date.
“Our anti-piracy operation is run out of the UK and our operation against trafficking in the Mediterranean is run from Italy, so it would be tricky to put them together,” she said. “It would be better for different member states to handle different operations.”
Training missions were an exception, said the source. “In that case there would be a clear added value to have a common HQ,” she said.
Speaking at the meeting earlier this month, UK Defense Minister Michael Fallon said he was relieved that talk of a military HQ had been toned down.
“We’re avoiding a new military headquarters, the level of ambition seems to have been tempered,” he said.
"Instead of planning expensive new headquarters or dreaming of a European army, what Europe needs to do now is to spend more on its own defence, that is the best possible approach to the Trump presidency," Fallon said.
Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni took a different view, claiming that if Europe did not yet have a military general staff, the document set out “the premise” for one.
“This is a limited step, not the advanced program that we Italians hope to carry out one day, but thanks to the push by Germany, France and Italy, it is a step in the right direction.”
Gentiloni also suggested that as the UK left the European Union, London might become more grateful about having a more integrated Europe as a neighbor.
That view appeared to be on display on Nov. 15, at a follow-up meeting of European defense ministers, when the UK did not veto a small increase in funding for the European Defense Agency, which tries to harmonize defense procurement across the Union.
The UK has vetoed budget hikes for the agency for the last six years.
Analysts said the appeal of an EU military capability could also increase among Eastern European states if a Trump presidency fails to give full backing to NATO, which they currently look to for protection from an increasingly aggressive Russia.
The EU would look doubly appealing should Trump forge closer ties with Moscow, they said.
But NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg appeared confident about the alliance’s future when he met the EU defense ministers on Nov. 15.
“I am absolutely certain that NATO will continue to be the bedrock of our security,” he said, “and I also welcome the decision of the Foreign Ministers of the European Union yesterday to strengthen European defence, because that will be important, both for Europe, the European Union and for our transatlantic bond.”