A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

All Hands on Deck


Concerns about fragmentation shape Berlin’s understanding of the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy. That carries risks, especially with Brexit approaching.

© REUTERS/John MacDougall/Pool

Germany, along with France, was the driving force behind the initiatives that have given new momentum to the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) since the summer of 2016. With the introduction of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defense Fund (EDF), Berlin and Paris have succeeded in bringing new life to a policy area that had been deadlocked for decades and written off by many observers. As a result, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen was recently able to, with some justification, underline the progress the EU has made towards a “European Defence Union” and the speed it is demonstrating. Without Germany’s involvement, she noted in the German newspaper Handelsblatt, the way would not be paved for a comprehensive change in the understanding of the EU’s, particularly the Commission’s, role in military security.

Nevertheless, Germany consistently faces criticism for not playing a role commensurate with its political clout and the size of its economy, whether it’s because the government still spends too little on defense—and the current US president is not the first one to lament this—or because it doesn’t do enough to make Europe capable of quick and effective military action, a common complaint in Paris. Not ambitious enough, too hesitant, too inflexible, too dogmatic—Berlin hears it over and over again. How can this German approach be explained? How does the German government think European security and defense should be organized? What does Berlin want to achieve with which instruments and how does it define success? Putting on our “German glasses” to look at the CSDP initiatives, the French-created European Intervention Initiative (EI2), and the consequences of Brexit allows us to take stock.

Holding the EU Together

The CSDP has many functions for Germany. For one, the European framework gives domestic legitimacy to Germany’s defense-policy engagement. For large parts of the population, the idea of Germany going it alone is still unthinkable. More than a few Germans are also wary of NATO. They don’t want increased cooperation with the US, especially since Donald Trump took office; instead they advocate close connections with European partners, above all France. Embedding German defense policy in the EU takes the edge off it. In Germany, the EU Army (or the European Army or Army of Europeans, depending on how the politicians calling for it feel on the day) has for years been a popular rhetorical tool for affirming the commitment to defense in an EU framework—in part because its realization is always just beyond the horizon.

Moreover, by further developing the CSDP, the German government is pursuing the goal of tying another band around the EU to hold it together. After the Brexit vote of June 2016, attention turned to finding a joint future project with France, and both governments saw security and defense policy as having the most potential. The strengthening of the CSDP serves, then, as an additional measure to promote the cohesion of EU member states, which can no longer be taken for granted these days.

But it would be wrong to accuse Berlin of having no ambitions for the CSDP beyond favorable rhetoric and EU integration. Germany wants to substantially and sustainably build up the CSDP with “confidence-building intermediate steps” and not “in a hurry,” as von der Leyen puts it. For example, for Berlin it is not about the ability to send large numbers of soldiers to Africa for military intervention as quickly as possible. Rather, Berlin wants to work to improve Europe’s ability to act in the long term, in the hope that the bloc’s decision-making capabilities will improve along with it in the coming years.

Strategy with a Downside

These considerations absolutely make sense. Trust in the EU as a defense actor still has to grow in many member states. Germany does see itself, along with France, as a driver of the CSDP, but it also tries not to leave any country behind—in Berlin one speaks of an “inclusive” CSDP. One reason PESCO is currently being described as a success is that nearly every EU country is taking part in the format, including countries like Poland that initially took a skeptical view. The downside of the strategy, however, is that Germany must face accusations that it is setting up CSDP institutions in order to register their mere existence as a success, rather than using the CSDP to take concrete action against the threats on Europe’s borders.

One thing is often neglected in the public debate in and about Germany: for most German decision-makers, including in the defense ministry and the Bundeswehr, NATO under US leadership remains the key pillar of German defense. This is true (for now) despite the Trump factor in Washington and the “beer tent” speech in which Chancellor Merkel obliquely questioned the US’s reliability. Germany’s leadership of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force and its participation in the Baltic air-policing mission and the NATO Battlegroup in Lithuania are often overlooked in the domestic and international debate. The decision-makers do not consider the CSDP an alternative to NATO but rather a means to expand the European footprint in the alliance with the Americans in the long term.

The French Initiative

For Germany, multilateral institutions are the linchpin of the international order. On the other hand, there is little understanding for “more flexible” or “more pragmatic” formats. Attacks on multilateral institutions—which come from all sides, a particularly clear instance being US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech in Brussels on December 4—are from Berlin’s perspective not to be answered by strengthening ad-hoc coalitions in supranational structures. This explains why Berlin has so far only reluctantly gone along with the French European Intervention Initiative (EI2), which aims at enabling closer cooperation between the armed forces of European states that are willing and able to carry out military missions. In Berlin’s view, however, the goals of the French initiative remain unclear. Germany fears EI2 may even undermine the CSDP because it has been set up outside of EU structures.

That is why Berlin has clearly spoken in favor of moving the EI2 into the EU framework, and sooner rather than later. In the German understanding of the European security architecture, there is no place for efforts involving only a few select countries. Concerns about fragmentation and the weakening of multilateral organizations in which Germany has invested so much capital, political as well as real, are too great. This is even true for the special relationship with France: While Berlin subscribes to the idea of a Franco-German “motor” in the CSDP, the bilateral Aachen Treaty does not go appreciably beyond the existing multilateral commitments.

However, in their efforts to hold the EU together, many in Berlin overlook the fact that the EI2 can make a strong contribution to Europe’s ability to act—and that it does not necessarily conflict with the CSDP. Admittedly, it was difficult to grasp the ambition and scope of the initiative in the first weeks and months after President Macron announced it. But in its current form, the EI2 is bound by sensible and clear limits: it is not the silver bullet of European defense, but it is well-placed to fill gaps, for example in terms of Europe’s common analysis of threats. What’s more, it includes the United Kingdom.

Brexit and Its Consequences

Berlin’s understanding of the CSDP has an effect on the German approach to security and defense cooperation with Britain after Brexit, both in a European and a bilateral context. The German government understands the CSDP to be inwardly inclusive but outwardly exclusive. As with the entire Brexit process, the feeling is that, with regard to the CSDP, there must be a significant difference between EU member states and third countries. It is a matter of not making mere cooperation with the EU appear as attractive as EU membership. Even though Germany is seeking to create a close and constructive relationship with Britain after Brexit, from Berlin’s point of view the goal cannot be to duplicate the level of cooperation that takes place in the EU framework.

In the Brexit negotiations, the unity of the remaining 27 member states has always been the top priority for Berlin. Therefore the government has avoided undermining the divorce process with bilateral agreements and creating the impression of a “special relationship” between Germany and the UK. Even the “Joint Vision Statement” on closer cooperation on security and defense policy was only released after some hesitation, while a corresponding and nearly-complete declaration on foreign policy is still parked in a desk drawer. In order to limit the space for security cooperation outside of the EU and NATO (and the UN), neither statement has objectives as ambitious as those in the Lancaster House treaties between France and Britain.

On top of that, many in Berlin argue that real progress in the CSDP has only been possible since Britain voted to leave. They see Brexit as more of a liberation than a loss. To prove their point, they point to the obstructionist British stance that for years prevented the CSDP from reaching the agreements it has since the Brexit vote, for example on a European headquarters for EU missions. From this perspective, keeping Britain too close risks allowing a Trojan horse into the EU. The argument that cutting the cord to the greatest military power in Europe could lead to problems in the quest for autonomy is not catching on. Nor does Berlin really fear the frictions that could arise when it comes to cooperation with Britain in the NATO framework.

From a German point of view, Britain should take part in the CSDP within the framework of third-country cooperation, as is already common practice. It’s important for Berlin that political control and decision-making authority remain EU competencies if Britain takes part in PESCO projects on a case-by-case basis. With regard to the European Defense Fund, the approach is that no EU money should flow to third countries and that Britain should participate financially in the fund. There is a long-term interest in keeping in check the Commission’s decision-making authority over European arms policy should the Brussels executive act against German interests.

However, the German position is not yet set in stone on every point, and there are certainly different positions in the relevant ministries. Thus the way Brexit plays out will influence Germany’s position. It is already clear that, in the course of the Brexit process, much of the trust in the British negotiating partner has faded away.

Form Follows Function

The creation of a “European Defense Union” serves in Germany’s eyes to create a connective framework in which as many EU member states as possible can come together and cooperate. Only in the long term is it an instrument for strengthening Europe’s ability to defend itself, which Berlin continues to see as something guaranteed by NATO. The German government has been clear that it doesn’t want any parallel structures or incentives–neither bilaterally nor as “coalitions of the willing”—that could undermine EU institutions.

But since, at the moment, there is no shared understanding among all the EU member states about which EU foreign policy interests are the most important and must be defended, member states will inevitably and increasingly set up ad hoc formats in which smaller groups of EU and NATO countries can act directly. There is of course the danger that the supranational and binding power of CSDP will be subverted. But the risk of creating EU formats incapable of action is even greater.

After all, every format in which Europeans work together on defense policy strengthens Europe’s ability to act, whether through improved interoperability or the harmonization of threat analyses. Berlin should not only support the EI2 but also push harder to expand cooperation between the EU and NATO. The European security situation demands all hands on deck.

If the EU, as a complement to NATO, is indeed to become an organization that “produces” European security, it also needs to offer attractive “docking mechanisms” to those countries that are central to European security, even if they are no longer EU member states. If attractive participation mechanisms for strategic partners—like the British, the Norwegians, in some cases even the Turks—are not created soon, the CSDP won’t be able to live up to its promises. An “inclusive” CSDP is only effective with the inclusion of Britain.

So Germany should get more involved in EU negotiations about third-country participation in the CSDP. With regard to industrial cooperation in the field of defense, Berlin is less dogmatic than, say, Paris. The Brexit negotiations haven’t yet reached the stage of “future relations.” But on the EDF, for example, the EU is already agreeing on directives that stipulate the “strict conditions” under which third countries can take part in EU-promoted defense capabilities projects. In the next few years, member states will have to weigh security and defense interests, economic interests, and the union’s security of supply in a crisis. On this issue, Berlin should join the Netherlands or Scandinavian countries to speak out for the unproblematic participation of like-minded third countries in EU defense capabilities projects.

With regard to British participation in CSDP decision-making and the operational participation of British associations, it is understandable that Berlin has doubts about the sincerity of Britain’s newfound enthusiasm for the CSDP. Berlin should, though, give Britain the opportunity to prove that its offer to become an “ambitious” CSDP partner is a serious one.

At the heart of Berlin’s efforts is the goal of making the EU into an international organization capable of action on defense. This ambition for the distant future does not, however, meet the challenges of the current threat situation. The pressure on Europe is acute. The CSDP has to be able to deliver on its promises if it is to to be effective against the dangers Europe is confronted with—especially in areas where NATO is unwilling or incapable of action.