Europe mulls defence policy and US reliance after Afghan watershed

Europe Letter: Kabul airport chaos proves a ‘stark demonstration’ of limits of EU power

Events in Afghanistan have reignited discussion of the European Union's relationship with the United States and whether it has been overly dependent on Washington to defend its interests in the world.

The election of US president Joe Biden raised hopes in the EU of a rekindled transatlantic relationship following the damaging Trump years.

But while rhetoric from Washington has supported those aspirations, the major test of the withdrawal from Afghanistan demonstrated to European allies that when it comes to actions, an “America First” ethos can prevail.

The US is accused of not adequately consulting and communicating with allies about its plans. And when France, Germany and Britain asked Biden to retain troops in Kabul airport past an agreed August 31st deadline to allow evacuations to continue for longer, he refused.


Mutual bitterness spilled out into a briefing war between London and Washington

This revealed the harsh truth that the Europeans relied on the US to conduct any evacuations at all.

It appears that neither side is content with this arrangement. The mutual bitterness spilled out into a briefing war between London and Washington, following an attack claimed by the Isis-K militant group on Kabul airport's Abbey Gate on Thursday that killed almost 200 people including 13 US personnel.

In the ensuing blame game British foreign secretary Dominic Raab was forced to deny suggestions that the US had kept Abbey Gate open longer than it wished to in order to allow Britain continue its evacuations, which were partly co-ordinated from the nearby Baron Hotel.

European Union defence ministers and foreign ministers are gathering in Slovenia, where they will discuss the strategic implications of a moment widely seen as a historical watershed.

European Council president Charles Michel, who chairs gatherings of member state leaders when they meet, summed up the mood as he opened the Bled Strategic Forum conference in Slovenia as ministers began to gather.

“European influence will be, I think, our greatest challenge in the coming years and Afghanistan has offered a stark demonstration,” said Michel.

"As a global economic and democratic power, can Europe be content with a situation where we are unable to ensure unassisted the evacuation of our citizens and those under threat because they have helped us?

“In my view, we do not need another such geopolitical event to grasp that the EU must strive for greater decision-making autonomy and greater capacity for action in the world. The European Union has citizens to protect, interests to defend, and values and a rules-based international order to promote, and of course we cannot ignore strategic developments in the world,” he added.

Germany’s defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has called for “society as a whole” to confront the “difficult realities” of international politics.

This reflects the dynamism of current geopolitics as the capitals test out new alliances

“How far are we really willing to go to strengthen, protect and defend our values and achievements? By which means? At which expense? Within which limits?” she asked in a speech as the evacuations were under way.

Ahead of the debate, France and the Netherlands issued a joint declaration following a meeting of French president Emmanuel Macron and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte.

It set out policy areas on which they agree, and declared that the two countries would hold regular co-ordination meetings, mirroring the co-operation between France and Germany that has driven EU policymaking for years.

In itself, this reflects the dynamism of current geopolitics as the capitals test out new alliances to shape the post-Brexit and post-Angela Merkel era. It was a striking development for two countries that have often squared off in the EU over their differences, particularly in economic matters.

One area in which they agree: “France and the Netherlands are more convinced than ever that it is necessary to reach a consensus on how to strengthen Europe’s strategic autonomy.”

“Strategic autonomy” is a catch phrase that broadly represents ambitions for the EU to be able to act decisively, robustly, and without reliance on others in pursuit of its own interests, whether in security, the economy, or health.

The term is divisive: it is disliked by some eastern European countries that understand it to propose a distancing in the transatlantic relationship with the US, which is considered all-important by many states that border Russia.

But in the view of Paris and the Hague, European development and the alliance with the US under Nato are complementary.

“Europe must show itself to be resilient and capable by taking more responsibility for its security and defence and by allocating the necessary resources to this objective,” their declaration read, noting “in light of the worsening geopolitical and global security environment . . . Nato is the keystone of the common collective defence strategy”.

Expect the idea of “strategic autonomy” to be aired plenty more in the weeks to come.