German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to throw her weight behind a French initiative to create a unified European armed force has surprised some of her fellow continental leaders.
Speaking to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday (Nov 13) hours after US President Donald Trump mocked the very same idea in his tweets, Dr Merkel told MPs that the continent should one day consider creating a “real true European army”.
Her words were received with loud applause from many, but also with boos from some MPs. However, the real worry in European capitals is not so much that the Germans are now about to embark on a new initiative to refashion Europe; rather, it is that with her political career drawing to an end and Britain leaving the European Union, Dr Merkel opted to address the symbolic question of a European army rather than the real and more urgent challenges facing the continent.
Although the topic of a common European defence framework has been discussed for years and some joint European defence units already exist – a Franco-German brigade, for instance, was present at the recent centennial Paris commemorations of the end of World War I in Paris – most European leaders usually deny that their purpose is to create a full-fledged European army.
And for good reasons, since there is no political consensus on what this would actually mean, and a great apprehension that, if Europeans insist on the creation of a continent-wide army, they will not only fail, but will also destroy the US-led Nato alliance which they currently have, so they’ll end up as double-losers.
French President Emmanuel Macron abandoned this caution recently by reviving the European army idea. He even went further by suggesting that not only should Europe have a fully-fledged joint military but that – at least in some areas such as defence against cyber attacks – Europe could end up lumping the US in the category of rivals, together with Russia and China.
Traditionally, Dr Merkel has sought to avoid such controversial statements; unlike the French, the Germans were always much more apprehensive about the prospects of endangering the US security guarantee which allowed Germany to prosper during the Cold War.
But she has now decided to back Mr Macron’s initiative partly because she was stung by the hostile stance which the US President has taken towards Europe, and by his repeated hints that the US may no longer have much interest in upholding the Nato alliance.
“The times that we could rely on others without reservation are over,” she told European MPs in her speech. “We Europeans have to take our destiny in our own hands,” she added, although she hinted that establishing a European army is a long-term plan, and that “no one is questioning” the Nato alliance.
But the real reason why the Chancellor chose to concentrate on the military question is that she finds herself unable to deal with France’s more pressing demands to reform the EU.
The French are worried about the risk of a new crisis over the euro single currency, especially since a new centre-right government in heavily-indebted Italy is planning to violate EU regulations on budget deficits.
France wants German support to establish a European system ensuring that governments could access, in an emergency situation, a fund designed to prevent catastrophic national bankruptcies of the kind Greece faced earlier this decade, and that European banks will be supported, in order to prevent a meltdown of the continent’s financial system.
But Dr Merkel, whose country will have to bear the lion’s share of the financial costs of such bailout schemes, has always shied away from such ideas, and continues to do so.
“We need to develop our monetary policy better,” she told European MPs this week. “We have to look at responsibility and control, a banking union and then later a European insurance system,” she added.
These are code words suggesting that no immediate German support for the reforms proposed by France is forthcoming, and that European countries have to put their own finances in order first, and only then look to the EU for assistance, a traditional and by now well known German position.
Dr Merkel’s sudden emphasis on the French idea of creating a new European army is designed to hide the fact that, on almost any other major EU topic, she is failing to support France’s stances.
And the tactic worked as intended; after her speech to the European Parliament, most of Europe’s media concentrated on the European army, rather than on her avoidance of broader EU reform.
But in Paris, the reaction was more muted. For French officials know that all they got from Dr Merkel’s speech is support for a military scheme that ultimately won’t fly, yet no real support for the schemes Europe really needs.
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