Rearming Europe: a challenge as vital as it is multifaceted

Bruno Vever


5 October 2023

"I am in charge of an army that has nothing". This bitter observation by Alfons Mais, Inspector General of the Bundeswehr, following the sudden aggression in Ukraine by Putin's Russia, can be addressed as much to Europe as to Germany alone.

This anger and dismay will certainly have appealed to Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission and former German Defence Minister. But the other leaders of Europe cannot exempt themselves from it, after thirty years of short-sightedness in which they have scarcely sought, beyond France's preservation of the tools of its nuclear deterrent, to recover any autonomous defence capability, despite the previous fifty years of absolute military dependence on the United States and a frontal and glacial confrontation with a totalitarian Russia. Now Russia, having returned to its worst demons after a chaotic liberal reconversion that turned into a mafia, now wants to avenge its eviction from the continent and its political and economic decline with weapons.

No corrective action can be taken in such a situation unless all the evidence of the European Union's culpable lack of security is clearly brought to light and all the lessons duly drawn. A vast programme!

An accumulation of worrying findings

The "happy globalisation" advocated by a carefree European Union, asleep under its commercial laurels, has now given way to a global redistribution of the cards, with the armed confrontation in Ukraine, the energy crisis triggered by the sanctions against Russia, and the assertion of a hostile axis around the BRICS. These combine the emerging powers of the "global South" with dictatorships of all kinds, including an increasingly ambitious and domineering China and an increasingly vindictive and aggressive Russia, both eager to oust us from Africa and our other positions in the world. All these states are united by an ostensible distancing from, if not outright opposition to, the West, its past domination, its current positions and, to varying degrees, its freedoms and democratic values.

As an all-out war rages in Ukraine, on Europe's doorstep, Europe's intrinsic weakness has become, at last perceptible to all, a mortal peril. The aid it is doing its best to provide to the Ukrainians, with the support of NATO, would not be enough without the decisive contribution of the United States, the all-powerful and undisputed leader of the Atlantic Alliance, while at the same time contributing, given the pitiful state of European arsenals, to worsening its own disarmament in the face of Russia.

The United States has no qualms about making Europeans pay for this long-lasting security dependency in political, economic, technological and commercial terms, in addition to undeclared means of intrusive control.

But the worst thing for Europe is that its dependence entails more than ever the major risk of the United States, depending on its own elections and the situation in the Pacific, reconsidering the strength of its European commitment.

Nor can we sidestep the out-of-control migration crisis that Europe is facing as a result of the pressure from sub-Saharan Africa, with its tragic situations and its many victims, but also a scale that is becoming overwhelming.

We will see the calamitous effects of an explosive African demography against a backdrop of internal wars, abandoned, martyred or fanaticised populations, and political destabilisation activated underhand by China and Russia. For its part, Europe, with its wealth of social aid and NGOs of all kinds, is experiencing a symmetrical demographic depression, despite the large contingents of immigrants already settled on its soil. Lacking any strong specific identity or unified organisation with common borders, its lack of political leadership is leaving its southern states to cope with mass arrivals, which an "invisible hand" in Brussels is then trying to distribute in improvised quotas.

However attractive it may appear to these migrants, Europe has by no means become an economic paradise, the Eldorado of the "most competitive economy in the world" promised by its illusory Lisbon Strategy 2000-2010, which, without any serious programme, relied on the continuation of favourable winds and on mutual exchanges of "good practices" in order to take the lead in the race for new technologies.

It didn't just lose the race. It has been roundly pummelled from all sides, and in the areas that are most strategic for the future. Even though it has retained its know-how and leading positions in certain fields such as aeronautics, space and, in France's case, nuclear power, its overall industrial and technological competitiveness has declined steadily over the last few decades, with a growing gap that is difficult to make up in the face of a digital revolution with countless applications and repercussions. Among other things, we will see the consequences of a particularly short-sighted competition policy on the part of the Brussels Commission, which has done everything possible to prevent the emergence of European champions, while at the same time opening up the European market without limits to the American and Asian giants, both in industry and services, who now dominate us unchallenged.

Having sold off many of its patents, brands and technological flagships without compensation, unable to create its own 'GAFAs', and forced to make its industrial exports increasingly conditional on turnkey technology transfers, Europe has lagged far behind the United States while China, followed by other emerging competitors, has caught up and surpassed it over the last twenty years at a truly staggering rate.

In the past, Europe imported labour to produce and export its industrial goods in a world where it had acquired a leading commercial position. Today, relegated mainly to a service economy, which it has no guarantee of retaining control of, over-indebted under the weight of its social charges, it imports most of its industrial products while facing unwanted migratory pressure, total war on its doorstep, unbridled Russian expansionism once again, endless security dependency, a structural energy crisis, fading from the international scene and the hostility of a resentful "global South". Is it possible to overshadow such a picture?

Vital requirements that have become urgent

Faced with this unprecedented crisis that challenges Europe in every area, time is running out. Faced with a tornado of headwinds, its Community policy of small steps, so measured, so inadequate, and so often interrupted by long pauses or even genuine setbacks, cannot continue.

To do nothing more would be to programme Europe's inevitable decline, the prelude to a fatal decline that is already perceptible in a world undergoing profound upheaval.

"Re-arming Europe" will not only mean finally equipping it with the defensive weapons to ensure its autonomous security and dissuade its adversaries, be they potential, declared or overt, from any aggression, neutralisation or even subjugation.

This rearmament will involve, in the broadest sense, re-equipping from top to bottom a European structure that is currently reduced to last-minute arrangements, i.e. superficial tinkering that is insufficient to resist effectively and even to win back - because it is less necessary than ever to renounce it - the positions lost in the face of the storms that have risen and the new ones that threaten.

Lastly, and no doubt first and foremost, because everything is linked, this will mean rediscovering the faith, conviction and determination to act together that are the only way to rearm Europe politically, in terms of identity and security.

Of course, we still have to find ways of linking all these issues and responding to them, with twenty-seven Member States and soon well over thirty. This is the essential question, and in truth the only one. Awareness of the scale of our decline will remain futile unless there is agreement on the operational means to remedy it effectively, without fear of having to overturn a table that has become too wobbly!

An essential Franco-German prerequisite

A first priority will be to quickly dispel the malaise, admittedly intermittent and diffuse rather than overt, that is currently affecting Franco-German relations. The 2019 Treaty of Aachen, which was supposed to revive the 1963 Franco-German Elysée Treaty, failed to do so. Instead of committing to deepening genuine political, diplomatic and security integration, this ill-advised treaty preferred to multiply its disorganised promises of multiple and superfluous forms of cooperation. It took no account of the progress made in building Europe since 1963, the repercussions of Brexit, the challenges of our common security or the upheavals underway on the world stage.

No response was given to the plans for political union previously proposed by Germany to Presidents Mitterrand and then Chirac, or even in the opposite direction to the prospects for European revival put forward by President Macron in his speeches at the Sorbonne, in Strasbourg and in Berlin.

On the contrary, the bilateral climate has gradually deteriorated, beyond and despite the common European front fortunately opposed to Russian aggression in Ukraine, with sanctions that will have particularly cost Germany, forced to reconsider its entire policy of importing energy from Russia and sacrificing the gigantic infrastructures put in place with the latter.

But this European solidarity with Ukraine did not prevent Chancellor Scholz from going solo to Beijing to secure his own bilateral trade, then favouring American industry in his €100 billion national rearmament programme, before inaugurating a European defence programme for the skies over Europe, which turned out to have no French participation whatsoever!

We can see in this desynchronisation and these cuts to the mutual partnership the effects of an unspoken but underlying German resentment at still being treated, eighty years after the end of the Second World War, as an outcast from the powerful UN Security Council, with France persisting in refusing any European sharing of its permanent seat agreed in 1945 by the Allies.

However, there is one way we could have resolved the situation and rebuilt a strong and genuinely united common interest with Germany, opening up new political, diplomatic, security, industrial and technological prospects. This would have required the conclusion of a bilateral pact ensuring that the positions expressed by France at the Security Council would henceforth be expressed in the name of both countries, the first step towards asserting a single European voice. Why didn't we do this, and why should we be surprised when we suffer similar setbacks in return?

The search for a dynamic majority among the twenty-seven Member States

Of course, one swallow does not make a spring, and such a Franco-German agreement would not have been enough on its own to get a Europe out of the rut that, with twenty-seven members, no longer resembles the Europe of the six founding countries set in motion by Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet after rallying the support of Chancellor Adenauer. The prospect of a "Franco-German directoire" is even likely to ruffle some feathers today, particularly in the South and East of Europe.

This is why the Franco-German tandem, while appearing more vital than ever in restoring the driving force behind European integration and its all-out rearmament, should, if it dared to embark on such a political coup, pay the utmost attention to involving all its European partners who wish to share in their unprecedented advance towards integration.

This would undoubtedly include the six founding countries, but also many others, although it would not be possible to identify and count them before taking this first step. But it would not be unreasonable to expect to see the gradual formation of a new federative political majority within the twenty-seven, as a first step towards an effective and autonomous rearmament of Europe at every level.

Predictable public support

Faced with such a prospect, many will also wonder about the attitude of European public opinion, which is currently so open to populist and eurosceptic currents, even if a growing proportion of their leaders were to take upon themselves the political and electoral risk of speeding up common integration.

However, the question seems less risky than it might at first appear, because it is generally as badly asked as it is misinterpreted. All the opinion polls conducted among Europeans have shown that the reactions of defiance or hostility towards Brussels are not directed against European integration per se, but against the Union as it currently functions.

Not without reason, they feel that the EU is as quick to weaken or even abolish national protections as it is slow or even incapable of replacing them with tangible European protections. Motivated to activate the free movement of capital, anxious to organise the internal distribution of migrants from third countries, the European Union seems to be in no hurry to provide itself with effective political leadership, unified common customs officers at the external borders, or an autonomous, modern and dissuasive army.

These surveys also indicate that public opinion would not be at all hostile to the emergence of a finally significant European budget, in place of the 1% of European GDP so meagrely allocated by Member States whose own budgets confiscate half of this GDP, provided that such a transfer is accompanied by a common framework eliminating fraud and tax iniquities between States, effectively supports credible collective security and contributes directly to a perceptible economic recovery, with the new jobs that go with it.

Finally, taxpayers would welcome the fact that such a transfer, by creating significant economies of scale, would alleviate an overall tax burden that has become unbearable as a result of the duplication and wasteful "every man for himself" approach of the Member States.

Giving ourselves the real means for autonomous security

Ensuring collective security free from any pressure, domination or intimidation would require Europe to make an unprecedented industrial and competitive rearmament effort.

A prerequisite for this would be a fundamental change in the Community's position on defence issues, which today are essentially excluded from its remit. For example, defence-related orders from the Member States are not covered by the opening up of public procurement markets, whereas they should not only be covered but should also be the subject of genuine mutual preferences, which is the only way to achieve political and industrial autonomy for European defence.

Similarly, rather than discouraging them, the Commission should promote and accelerate European cooperation and industrial groupings to ensure that we catch up with our technological lags, particularly in digital technology, artificial intelligence and robotics, which are revolutionising all data and all sectors, starting with defence. Particular attention in rearmament should be paid to aeronautics, launchers and missiles, satellites and space, as well as maritime control. European redeployment of this kind would create a large number of innovative jobs and unprecedented subcontracting networks involving numerous SMEs on a European scale.

The most sensitive issue would of course remain nuclear deterrence. Germany and other European countries have no shortage of such weapons on their soil, but under exclusive American control. Faced with six thousand Russian and five thousand five hundred American nuclear warheads, France, the only autonomous nuclear power in the European Union following the departure of the British, can field three hundred, most of them well hidden under the world's seas, capable of providing a sufficiently credible and formidable deterrent against the absurdity of an overkill.

Is it therefore conceivable that France could extend its deterrent protection to the whole of the European Union, with the latter participating in return in the corresponding re-equipment of a system at its service (aircraft carriers, submarines, missiles)? Such a prospect would undoubtedly be acceptable to our European partners if this deterrent were based on firm and irreversible guarantees, while accompanying the affirmation of an effective and modernised common conventional army under European command. It would be up to the latter, if necessary, to defend the European Union against any escalation or extension of a high-intensity war such as the one in Ukraine, the nuclear deterrent being there only to protect against any temptation from the other side to use it.

Such an autonomous rearmament of the Union would be done while remaining faithful to the Atlantic Alliance and NATO, but without inflicting on ourselves an eternal and unconditional dependence subject only to the goodwill of our powerful American ally.

Facing the uncertainty of the future by risking boldness today

For a Europe that had forgotten the lessons of "si vis pacem, para bellum" and is now paying the exorbitant price, the time has come to make a choice. Faced with the persistence of undivided American domination and the rise of new imperialisms that regard it with ill-concealed condescension, seeking by every means to compete with it, marginalise it, oust it, divide it or even subjugate it, will Europe finally show a modicum of boldness, finally aware that "true respect demands the courage of risk"?

For Europe today, this risk is called political integration, a condition for its global rearmament. On a global scale, Europeans have shrunk. Divided, they have become insignificant; easy toys for all kinds of external manipulation. But united, they can transcend themselves into a federated power of half a billion inhabitants, capable of playing on an equal footing with anyone else, earning respect and playing an active part in another form of globalisation, one that is calmer, more balanced, more respectful of the rights and freedoms of all, and more concerned about new common priorities, particularly environmental priorities, for the planet.

So what are we waiting for?

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