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New Atlanticist September 3, 2021

Germany’s defense minister: Only political will can protect Europe

By Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer

Following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, it is absolutely crucial that we Europeans accept an important truth about the end of our mission in the Hindu Kush: We were unable to resist the US decision to withdraw from the country because we did not have the military capabilities that would have enabled us to stay on there without the American military presence. As a consequence, our political leverage was limited.

It is true that the West has suffered a significant blow in Afghanistan. But whether this will translate into permanent defeat depends entirely on the conclusions we now draw from this experience. If those lessons lead to a divide between the European Union (EU) and the United States, or between Europeans and Americans, that would be a real defeat. And if, as a result, we withdraw from international engagement and our global responsibilities, the West will have truly lost. 

But if we Europeans get serious about defense now, and if we manage to back up our diplomacy with genuine military muscle and strengthen the West as America’s partner in leadership, then the West as a whole will be the winner. 

So what is to be done? 

First, we must not get mired in debate about whether or not we need to establish a new EU rapid-reaction force as an additional military unit at the EU’s permanent disposal. Creating a separate force is not the issue; plenty of military resources already exist. True, we could always use more equipment. But in reality the limiting factor is not a lack of technical capabilities or even institutions. It is, instead, a lack of political will to act together. 

The future of EU security and defense revolves around a set of key questions: How can we finally make full use of our existing capabilities? Is there enough political will to act jointly? And, if not, how can we create this political will? 

Then, following from these questions: How can we more quickly come to decisions as twenty-seven member states, so that our multitude no longer limits our aptitude? What is our level of ambition? What kind of missions do we actually want to take on? And, from a military practitioner’s perspective, when can we start training for them? 

Once we clarify our ambition in a specific situation, we could quickly invoke Article 44 of the EU Treaty to enable a “coalition of the EU willing” to act, based on a collective decision by all member states. 

As soon as we have turned the EU defense debate into a discussion about political will—not institutions—additional strategic steps could follow. 

For example, on regional security in Europe’s immediate and wider neighborhood, we could assign clearly defined areas of responsibility to groups of member states that act in these regions on behalf of the entire European Union. We could also make better, more integrated use of our existing cooperation on strategic airlifts. The same is true for cooperation in space involving satellite communications and reconnaissance assets. 

Finally, to prepare for operations such as the evacuation effort in Kabul, our special forces could commence exercising together for precisely designed scenarios and contingencies.

Real strength in EU security and defense can only come from the member states and their capitals. That’s where the resources are, and that’s where decisions about the use of force can be made. The institutions in Brussels can certainly help, but it is the member states’ responsibility to come together and end Europe’s lackluster performance on defense. 

Conversations between member states on some of these ideas have already begun. But it is now time for these discussions to be broadened and intensified, with the goal of making the European Union a strategic player to be reckoned with.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is Germany’s federal minister of defense.

Further reading

Image: German and Romanian soldiers stand on the tarmac of a NATO airport in Constanta, Romania, on July 1, 2021. Photo via Christophe Gateau/dpa.