17 April 2018

Back in December, the launch of the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) was celebrated as an important step towards the build-up of greater EU defence capabilities and a more coordinated European foreign policy. Move the hands of the clock forward by a handful of months and the military intervention in Syria has reminded everyone, if there was any necessity to do so, that a truly European foreign policy remains today a chimera.

EU foreign ministers yesterday met in Luxembourg to sign off the missile strikes. But that was after the fact and they were presented with a fait accompli. The Council had little choice but to get in line. This is not to say that member states, given the chance, would have opposed the strikes; all the largest countries in Europe, from Germany to Italy and Spain, expressed their support ahead of the operation, although some smaller member states with particularly strong links to Russia might have opposed it. Yet it shows that when action – especially such decisive action – is deemed necessary, the European framework tends to be sidestepped.

It is telling that France, arguably the most vocal supporter of the need for greater European defence capabilities, opted for a coordinated intervention with the US – a non-EU country – and the UK – a country soon to leave the EU. It did not choose to push things through the EU institutional context in the first instance. This is of course nothing new; France had already coordinated its 2011 intervention in Libya with the UK and the US. Yet, it takes on a new significance in the context of discussions on how to best develop a post-Brexit European foreign and defence policy.

Events in Syria have made apparent that establishing greater military cooperation on the continent, as well as developing a truly European foreign policy that takes into account the new status of the UK after Brexit, will be crucial tasks in the upcoming months. Although France was quick to celebrate its success in securing US President Trump’s commitment in Syria, the White House pushed back and re-stated its resolution to pull out of Syria as quickly as possible.

The current US president is far less unequivocally committed to the multilateral framework than his predecessors. Trump is determined to reduce the US’s policing role globally, particularly if other countries are not – as he sees it – pulling their weight. Given the context of an increasingly active and assertive Russia, European countries will need to take on greater responsibilities in their neighbourhood. It remains unclear, however, if this can be done within the current EU institutional structures.

There have been attempts recently to promote greater military cooperation within the EU. PESCO is one such programme, as are the European Defence Fund (EDF), an embryonic form of common investment in military capabilities, and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), an initiative supposed to synchronize EU defense planning.

Questions remain as to the effectiveness of these projects. An inclusive approach to PESCO triumphed over a more operational set-up – so it is open to doubt whether it will represent a real breakthrough in establishing effective European defence capabilities. It also remains to be seen how the UK, currently one of the two biggest military powers in the EU, can take part in these sorts of initiatives after Brexit.

A more decisive step towards a greater and more active role for the EU on the global stage could come from the suggestion of introducing Qualified Majority Voting for foreign policy decisions in the Council. The German government has recently shown it would be supportive of such a proposal. But introducing QMV requires unanimity in the Council and it is doubtful that smaller member states, especially in Eastern Europe, would be ready to give up their veto power.

Crucially, as the developments in Syria have highlighted, there appears to be a fundamental difference in how the mightiest EU27 member states see the EU’s role in the global arena. A popular concept to describe the EU in international relations is that of normative power, that is an actor whose power consists in shaping norms on the global stage. However, there remains a fundamental difference between setting norms by example (a model that Germany seems to be more inclined to embrace) and actively exporting these norms (the model favoured by France).

This fundamental difference, alongside particular national interests and the firm opposition of the UK, is what has so far prevented the development of a real European foreign policy. While Brexit might remove an obstacle, the other factors are likely to remain a stumbling block in the near future. Possibly because of this, French President Emmanuel Macron has avoided focusing all his energies on strengthening the development of an EU defence policy, and has conversely in parallel also pushed for the strengthening of a European – as opposed to EU – framework, particularly in the form of the European Intervention Initiative (EII).

It is unclear at this stage whether these two frameworks will be compatible with one another. But recent developments in Syria reinforce the impression that France will not wait for the EU to develop an independent foreign policy and autonomous defence capabilities, and is instead ready to work also outside the EU context. The development of a more operational and flexible framework for military cooperation outside of EU structures could, in this respect, represent an opportunity for the UK post-Brexit.