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PARIS – Listen carefully to French Defense Minister Florence Parly and it almost sounds like France is missing out on the bullying of Donald Trump at next month’s NATO summit.
It is not that Parly or its President Emmanuel Macron would not welcome the return of the United States to diplomatic form under President Joe Biden. They are “excited”, she says.
However, France is also concerned that the renewed transatlantic love festival will slow or even stop the awakening of Europeans from having to spend more on defense – something Trump promoted at a higher, harder volume than his predecessors.
“There is a constant in Euro-Atlantic relations that Europeans have to take care of their own security more,” Parly said in an interview with POLITICO in her Paris office.
“The very brutal burden-sharing discourse that President Trump had was brutal in shape, but it also expressed a reality,” she said. “I am absolutely certain that the Biden administration also thinks that the Europeans have to take on more.”
France is the EU’s military big hitter. After Brexit, it is the only member state with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and nuclear weapons, and is unmatched within the bloc for its ability to use significant conventional forces worldwide.
However, European partners accuse Paris of being insensitive to its security needs and trying to enforce its strategic perspective and multiply its strength through them. Critics on both sides of the Atlantic condemn French appeals for stronger European defense as a threat to NATO unity or as a plan to prop up the French defense and space industries.
This partly denies vigorously. She insists that a more robust European defense is essential to strengthen NATO and says that European allies cannot push aside fundamental changes in the strategic context of the transatlantic relationship, regardless of who sits in the White House.
“The United States’ strategic interest has structurally shifted to Asia, and whatever Europeans want is a data point,” Parly said.
“If we are to fully fulfill our role, we should continue to be good allies and advance our defense efforts,” she added. “We Europeans, who are stronger, make a positive contribution to the Atlantic Alliance, there is no danger of weakening this alliance, on the contrary.”
Europe’s contribution will be one of the sensitive topics that the heads of state and government of NATO – in a quieter atmosphere without Trump – will discuss at their summit in Brussels on June 14th goals and central security tasks with a view to 2030.
Challenges also include Washington’s increasing security focus on China, which many allies do not share; Russian military activity in Ukraine, Belarus and beyond; Arms control agreements that have a direct impact on European security are nearing their expiry date; Instability in south and south-east Europe; new cyber threats; and internal trenches, particularly with Turkey.
If not responded appropriately, the question arises as to the relevance of the alliance that Macron warned two years ago that it would be “brain dead”.
But while France is committed to expanding European defense, it is not being sold at the suggestion of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to increase NATO’s joint funding.
“All of this money is money that will not be used in increasing national budgets and in European defense efforts that will benefit NATO,” Parly said. “And what to do? Nobody can tell you. We have to double the budget and then think about what to do with the money? ”
During the interview, Parly avoided using the term “European strategic autonomy” except to say that it frightened some allies. This concept was promoted by France as a boost to NATO’s European pillar, but some allies fear it could fragment Europe’s limited defense resources and draw political energy from NATO.
Parly contradicts this and rattles off all NATO operations – from stationing as part of the alliance’s increased presence on the border between Estonia and Russia to naval patrols in the Mediterranean and air police over the Baltic states – in which France is actively involved, and the firepower and readiness it brings to the Alliance.
“I still don’t understand this eternal debate about possible competition between NATO and the Europeans,” said Parly. “We Europeans have our own voice and we have many interests in common with the United States, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to represent our own specific problems.”
As an example, she cited China, where, despite a recent hardening of positions, Europeans do not necessarily share Washington’s concerns. “If the US and China are in a confrontation, do we Europeans want to be in a confrontation?” Partly asked.
The speed with which the Biden administration announced the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan without much consultation with NATO allies who have troops stationed there shocked many Europeans. It served as a reminder that, although the US tone may have changed, its perception of its national interests will continue to guide political decisions.
While Parly complains that the development of European defense is still “going too slowly”, she says that there has been “incredible progress”.
With the European Intervention Initiative, France has built a coalition of European decision-making [EI2] started in 2018, and deployed special forces through a handful of European countries in the Sahel within the Takuba force.
“There are countries that are able and willing and they shouldn’t be held back,” Parly said.
These countries include Sweden, Estonia and the Czech Republic, which have combat troops stationed in Takuba. Parly says visits to the Sahel with European colleagues have done a lot in helping them understand the security needs of the region.
“Which I found extraordinary when we met before we Gao. left [a city in Mali], my Czech counterpart said to me: ‘We Europeans have two security problems, the East and the South, and the right approach is not for us Czechs to say that since we are close to the East, we will take care of the East, and you will If you’re French closer to the Sahel, you’ll be tackling the south. The right approach is to do it together, ‘”Parly said. “What he said wonderfully illustrates the common strategic culture. It’s in the works, but it’s not just a concept anymore. “
Defense experts warn, however, that building a European strategy culture will take much longer.
“European strategy culture is not a French strategy culture,” says Claudia Major, head of the research department at the think tank of the German Institute for Politics and Security. “You don’t build a strategic culture with eight countries in three years [in the EI2]. “
In addition to operational reluctance, attempts to build European defense capabilities in other areas can also prove problematic.
Europe’s largest planned joint project is the Franco-German-Spanish partnership to build a next-generation fighter jet platform called FCAS with an estimated cost of over 100 billion euros. It is followed by questions of financing, intellectual property and the division of labor and is still waiting for the approval of the German Bundestag.
Parly says it’s up to the federal government to pull this off.
“The ball is in the warehouse of the German Bundestag,” said Parly. “I fully trust my German counterpart Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and fully trust that Chancellor Merkel will lead this process through parliament to the end.”