The following interview with German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen appeared in Kathimerini Cyprus on March 17.
Germany and France lead the way for the European Defense Fund. Is it spurred by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and the pressure from the United States that led both countries to that direction and what is the end goal? The creation of a European army?
Europeans all know that none of us can cope with the ongoing security challenges around our continent on its own. It is in this spirit that EU member states have started the process of reinvigorating our common security and defence policy – even before the Brexit votum – and in December 2017 we succeeded to create PESCO, the permanent structured cooperation in defense. And we initiated works to create the European Defense Fund. Together with the new Planning Process for Defense CARD, to me this is the start of a European Defense Union.
In this context, a European army is a vision that might become a reality in generations to come. What we see today and what we already achieved is the first concrete steps on this way. By giving birth to the European Defence Union, we have started to build what I like to call the “Army of the Europeans.” We maintain national armies, under the authority of sovereign states, but better coordinated and mutually reinforcing. One goal is to overcome the fragmentation of military systems by developing and procuring more common solutions. This will improve efficiency and effectiveness. The European Defense Fund provides much incentive for that. And the overall aim is a safe and secure Europe!
Is there a model for European defense cooperation and NATO to coexist or is it too soon for that? Sceptics proclaim that the creation of EU armed forces, with a role in defending Europe’s borders, would signal a qualitative shift in EU policy towards territorial defence – far beyond the more limited ambition of the current EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).
First of all, NATO is the cornerstone, the fundament of Europe’s freedom and security when it comes to collective defence. At the same time, there are occasions where Europe wants and needs to act on its own; take crisis situations in Northern and Western Africa, our direct neighborhood. Towards that end, we need structures and capabilities to act when we so decide. That is the European pillar of Transatlantic Security. In effect, all our efforts to strengthen the EU’s military capacity are designed in such a way to be complementary to NATO as well. Europeans who are members of both NATO and the EU, like Germany, we all have only a single set of forces and seek a win-win-situation for both institutions.
France wants this force outside the framework of the EU, to allow Britain to join in even after it leaves the bloc. Germany prefers it to remain within the EU. What is your opinion?
Our common goal is a strong European voice. We have started to build the European Defense Union. With PESCO at its core, this framework will lead to the harmonization of planning, procurement, and use of European military capabilities. And Britain is welcome to join in specific projects or missions. We have come a long way in a short period of time – but we still have a long way to go. The so called “European Intervention Initiative” fits well with this PESCO framework and the project of building a European Defence Union. It is not about a standing military force. It is a strategic topping helping to build what we call a European “Strategic Culture”; we just have to put the pieces together as we go along. I envision kind of a “roofing ceremony” for the European Defence Union during the upcoming Council Presidency of Germany during the second half of 2020.
European military cooperation is mainly driven by the merging of national defense policies in various different ways. Does this represent a potential for greater convergence or divergence of national policies that might determine the future success or failure of European military cooperation?
Existing or rising challenges like terror networks and hybrid or cyber threats are a call on all of us to stand together and seek compromises. Luckily, there is a broad consensus among member states about this. That is why almost all member states joined the PESCO-process right at the beginning. We currently work on pragmatic third-country rules to be able to include case-by-case Partners to specific projects, for example Britain. A stable and secure Europe calls for all European nations to build this house, and it calls for the closest possible cooperation of EU and NATO.
Will there be any changes regarding EU treaties on defense and foreign policy?
The good thing is that we have had the tools in our treaties already for a long time. We just had to activate them and outline the formal framework. This is exactly what we did with creating the permanent structured cooperation “PESCO”, an idea buried deep in the Lisbon Treaty that we brought to life. Since then, the dynamism and variety of what has already grown in the last one and a half years is fascinating and encouraging! Now, it is on us member states to continue to fill this framework with life – for the better of our common security.
How will Europe become an even more active political actor in the Eastern Mediterranean – in Syria, Lebanon, in the Middle East Peace Process – in order to effectively tackle the migration crisis?
We all know that in Syria there is a desperate need for humanitarian relief. My country and many others already contribute with humanitarian assistance. Of course, the people need more, they wish for reconstruction which will require enormous financial input. Here it has to be clear that we will only invest in reconstruction in Syria if the political process led by the United Nations creates the political conditions necessary in Syria for all refugees, including those who fled from the Assad regime as well as those who fled from ISIL terror, to return without fear. These conditions are not met yet, but they have to be worked out. In this process Europeans can play an important role.