Hollande: EU has ‘strategic autonomy’ (I)

In an interview with six European newspapers, he bluntly expressed “the EU’s political cohesion, it’s economic weight and its strategic autonomy.” Before analysing the meaning of the things said by the French President right before an EU mini-summit on March 6, destined to establish a joint line of conduct on the part of the participants toward the anniversary of the founding Treaty of Rome (25 March 1957), let’s point out that the interview was with The Guardian (UK), Le Monde (France), La Vanguardia (Spain), La Stampa (Italy), Suddeutsche Zeitung (Germany) and Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland), and that the quotes were approved by Hollande himself before publication – hence these are veritable political messages.

The whole interview gains an out of the ordinary meaning, besides the fact that it is a veritable testament of the French President just two months before he leaves office, also because it highlights a possible line of Europe’s hard “core” (a line undeniably open to debate at the already mentioned mini-summit). First, it must be said that the French President is adopting a sthenic attitude in what concerns the current situation of the European Union, deemed to be truly in crisis. For instance, he interrupts the journalist’s question about the EU crisis to say he does not give in to despair, on the contrary: “I want to give Europe the image I expect from it: a project, a force, a power. What Europeans are asking is for the EU to be able to protect itself. For European sovereignty to secure its own borders, to secure itself from the risk of terrorism, finally to preserve a way of life, a culture, a community of spirit.”

We can say that these words voiced by Francois Hollande represent the spirit in which he treated, in this interview, the whole issue concerning the future of the EU. In fact, one of the readers’ comments to this interview, posted in ‘Le Monde’ (over 200 comments were posted), shows the following: “yes, I agree. The idea of a strong European capable of protecting itself in common must be promoted and this should not be resorted to on a country by country basis.”

And this is only the beginning of this interview with the French President, who undertook the mission to give visionary answers to the current EU crisis. What is interesting here, in this attempted analysis, is particularly one of the ideas suggested in view of overcoming the crisis, namely the idea concerning the issue of European defence. Firstly, Hollande turns to history, which must be considered in order to measure the distance travelled so far up to the vision currently proposed. The historical reference is made to the fact that the issue of Europe’s defence was, on the eve of the signing of the Treaty of Rome which established the Single Market (at first of “the Six,” in March 1957), deliberately left unaddressed precisely at France’s initiative. Basically, what was proposed back then, the so-called “Europe of defence,” which aimed at the creation of an “European army” meant to respond to the threat of a rebirth of German militarism and which would have represented a first step toward the federalisation of the continent, was eventually rejected in the French Parliament. A majority of French MPs, fearing the ceding of national sovereignty that the acceptance of the project was presumed to entail, considered that “European defence” would dent France’s individuality in Europe. More than 60 years since that historic event, which is known in the view of French federalists as “the crime of August 30” – the date on which the French Parliament undertook this decision –, Hollande is taking the decisive step of himself asking for a “Europe of defence.”

Today, the French President said, “Europe can relaunch itself through defence. Both to ensure its own security and at the same time to be able to act globally, to identify solutions to threatening conflicts. It is what Europeans must do with priority, in coherence with NATO.” In his view, the NATO alliance is necessary for this “Europe of defence,” there being no competition and no contradiction between the two. Because “European defence” is based on solidarity (it’s the concept included in the Lisbon Treaty, 2009), and the definition of this solidarity, offered by Hollande, goes beyond its clauses, in our opinion, being a close reproduction of NATO’s Article 5: “when a country is the victim of aggression, all others must provide assistance… What is necessary is the viability of partners. France is credible. Just like other Europeans, it supported the U.S. in Afghanistan in particular.” In his view, the American administration also has obligations toward its European allies, which are exacting not so much from the standpoint of budgetary contributions to European defence but from the standpoint of the values jointly promoted in the world. Of course, Europeans must hike their financial contribution to the joint defence that a NATO congruence with a “Europe of defence” entails.

When an interviewer noted that U.S. President D. Trump acted as “an accelerator of European defence” by asking the Europeans to hike their contributions to the North Atlantic alliance, Holland unhesitatingly agreed. “Our conviction is that he did this even before he was elected. We have made plenty of progress along with Germany. But it’s true that the announcement of an American disengagement prompted a reassessment. Europe must avoid any dependence that would place it in a situation of submissiveness, which would be serious, or of being abandoned, which is unacceptable. The realisation of this fact exists, but it must be reflected in a more efficient coordination of our defence policy, in the integration of our forces, in the consolidation of military capabilities and of the instruments for the projection of military power.” A project that opens new horizons to Trans-Atlantic cooperation in the security domain and consolidates this link between the two shores of the Atlantic – which lately seemed to be significantly compromised – is undeniably open.

However, “European defence” is faced with recent difficulties, like the UK’s exit from the EU following Brexit (June 2016). The United Kingdom’s exit from the EU, which will be completed following negotiations that are yet to start, raises the old issue of the UK’s necessary contribution to the continental balance of power. If, against the backdrop of Brexit, some Europeans considered that this makes possible the acceleration of “European defence,” since London had constantly opposed what it dubbed the danger of duplicating NATO, Hollande outlined a different perspective. Asked what role he sees for the UK in the “Europe of defence,” he said that France and the UK have a very serious military cooperation – the treaty that the two states concluded in 2010 goes as far as to stipulate the joint use of some military platforms (aircraft carriers), as well as joint training or bilateral industrial projects, including in the nuclear domain. On this issue, the French President continued, “the door must be open to all… hence I propose structured cooperation to bring together states that want to go further. In my view, the United Kingdom, even outside the EU, must be associated with European defence.”

To what extent will Hollande’s proposal materialise remains to be seen. On the same day, present in Brussels at the summit of EU defence ministers, UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon stated that he will continue to cooperate with European partners in the security and defence domain. “Today, I have urged the EU to cooperate more closely with NATO, to avoid unnecessary duplication and to work together on new threats, including cyber,” Fallon said, adding that it is necessary to optimise European performance in the edification of national military capabilities that can be put at the EU’s and NATO’s disposal. Hence, encouraging signals are coming from Paris and London in what concerns the construction of a European “defence” pole. What are the chances of its implementation and what difficulties does this process raise?


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