At a time of growing competition between global powers like the United States, Russia and China, the European Union is staging an internal debate over ways to enhance its strategic autonomy on issues ranging from defense to finance. France has been particularly vocal about the need to improve Europe's military credibility. But some of Paris' partners are worried about the consequences of its proposals.
The members of the European Intervention Initiative (EI2), a French plan to increase military cooperation in Europe, held their first meeting in Paris on Nov. 7. The main goal of the EI2, which consists of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Finland, is to develop a shared strategic culture and improve the ability of its members to carry out missions together. It is part of France's push to enhance Europe's strategic autonomy at a time of growing competition between global powers like the United States, Russia and China.
Looking For Allies
The EI2 was first proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2017, and the participating countries (sans Finland, which decided to join later) signed a letter of intent to create the group in July 2018. With the EI2, France is looking for politically willing European allies who have the resources to take military action. The EI2's membership reveals that France is willing to go beyond the European Union in its quest for partners (as the United Kingdom will leave the bloc in 2019) and also outside of NATO (as Finland is not a member of the Atlantic alliance).
France's expansive vision is making some of its partners nervous. Germany is currently a member of the EI2, but Berlin is worried that the project will create conflict or redundancy with the European Union's own initiatives for deepening military cooperation, most notably the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). Germany is also concerned about the participation of a future non-EU country, the United Kingdom, and the fact that only a third of EU member states are currently members, as Berlin would prefer a broader consensus at the bloc level. Finally, Germany fears that the EI2 could force it to become more active in military operations abroad, which is always a controversial issue for the country.
France has reassured its EU partners that the EI2 can coexist alongside PESCO, and that it will not lead to competition between EU and extra-EU initiatives. However, France's plans reveal that Paris is worried that PESCO, which involves most EU countries, is too bureaucratic and too modest in comparison to the EI2. France also argues that the EI2 complements and reinforces NATO, an argument supported by the membership of the United Kingdom, which is skeptical of any initiatives that conflict with NATO. But not every country agrees. Italy initially showed interest in joining the group but eventually withdrew out of concerns for potential divergences among the EI2, NATO and PESCO.
The Quest for Strategic Autonomy
France's plans to enhance the European Union's strategic autonomy go well beyond defense. Earlier this week, French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said Europe should increase its efforts to protect its "economic sovereignty," including plans to boost the international role of the euro as compared to the dollar and to develop special financial channels to maintain trade with Iran despite U.S. sanctions.
But the European Union is struggling to insulate itself from the United States. On Nov. 5, the financial messaging service SWIFT, which is based in Belgium, announced that it would comply with U.S. sanctions on Iranian banks, regardless of EU requests against it. In the meantime, the European Union has failed to find a country to host any special institution to preserve trade with Iran. And while Macron recently called for a "European army" to protect the bloc from potential aggression by countries like Russia, the idea is extremely controversial in Europe and there are currently no official plans to create such an army. In their quest for more strategic autonomy, France and the European Union may have ambition, but they'll continue to struggle with implementation.