Food for Thought: "Big League – More Europe, Not Less"

"We should consider introducing a new foreign policy guideline such as a 'three percent criterion' for more international commitment: we should spend at least 3 % of our GDP for crisis prevention, development assistance, and defense," demands MSC chairman Wolfgang Ischinger in the March issue of our "Monthly Mind" column.

Wolfgang Ischinger, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference and Senior Professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin (Photo: MSC/Kuhlmann).

When President Joachim Gauck, Defence Minister von der Leyen, and Foreign Minister Steinmeier argued at the Munich Security Conference in early 2014 that Germany would need to assume greater responsibility in foreign and security policy, the world was still comparatively stable and European security relatively intact.


Since then, however, with the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine, the European security order has plummeted into a grave crisis. Moreover, in Syria, the civil war has evolved into a regional conflagration that has also led to the greatest refugee catastrophe since the end of WWII. Terror attacks by ISIS have hit cities across Europe. The new US President openly questions American treaty obligations. And the list goes on. Thus, the arguments made by Gauck, von der Leyen, and Steinmeier are even more important today.


EU foreign and security policy represents a particularly promising and important field for German initiative. If Berlin acts resolutely on promoting EU external action, we would be able to advance Europe's global influence, and thereby our own – and we could also find a way to avoid falling into the "hegemony trap" that Berlin was faced with during the financial crisis and the Euro crisis. We would thus be able to further two key strategic objectives at the same time: a stronger, more capable EU, and a European Germany that is fully committed to collective European action.


After all, the central principle of German foreign policy applies today just as much as it has in the past decades: without Europe, everything is nothing. Responding to today's uncertainties with a renewed focus on the nation state would be a path that leads neither to peace nor to prosperity. No German foreign policy interest is more important than the creation and preservation of a stable European environment. Over the past decades, we were able to benefit from a peaceful Europe that is politically and economically integrated in the European Union and anchored in NATO.


In the aftermath of the financial crisis and the Euro crisis, Brexit, and the rise of right-wing populists, one thing seems to be obvious to many: a majority of Europe's citizens wants less Europe rather than more Europe, and more self-determination and control at the level of the state. While this may be true for some policy areas, it does in fact not apply to foreign and security policy. According to a Pew Research Center survey from the spring of 2016, 74 % of respondents across ten EU member states favor a more active role for the EU in world affairs. In Germany, too, 74 % endorsed this idea, while only 18 % said they would prefer to see the EU assume a less active role.


Thus, even if Europeans have generally grown more skeptical of the EU, they very clearly sense that nation states are too small, too insignificant, and too weak to deal with the massive foreign and security challenges on their own. Citizens are well aware that we can only defend European interests across the globe if we do so collectively through an effective EU foreign and security policy.


Currently, however, there is hardly any policy area where the gap between ambition and reality is wider than in the field of European foreign and security policy; not only in Germany but all across Europe. Indeed, foreign and security policy has often been an area of particular discord between member states. But today, more courageous European decisions begin to emerge, and we see a growing understanding that a common EU foreign and security policy is indispensable – and even more so after Donald Trump's election as US President.


While these developments are important, they represent hardly more than a very first step in the right direction. What are the next steps for the EU? And how can German policy sustain and promote this process?


First, we need a substantial strengthening of our institutions, of EU diplomacy, and of our crisis prevention measures.


The 2009 Treaty of Lisbon already provided a basis for a more coherent advancement of a common European foreign policy. The treaty created, among other things, the position of the Council President and of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy – two offices that have already achieved important accomplishments: For example, during the Iran negotiations, the three largest EU member states sat at the table, but negotiations were led under the European flag by Catherine Ashton and her successor Federica Mogherini. As a result, all member states, including smaller ones, could feel they were fully involved. Even so, unfortunately, when it comes to foreign policy crises and challenges such as ending the wars in Ukraine and Syria, European institutions are still often assigned a secondary role.


But finding an easy-to-use formula should not be that difficult, as former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski noted: first, member states could decide whether a certain foreign policy issue would best be addressed unilaterally or collectively. If the answer calls for a collective approach, EU institutions would then need to be given leeway and provided with any assistance they need.


However, without a well-stocked toolbox that consists both of military and civilian instruments, Europeans cannot protect their interests and values.


Diplomacy in Syria unfortunately provides a fitting example. Several European governments – as well as Washington – demanded an end of the Assad regime, but rhetoric was not turned into action. In some diplomatic formats that seek to end conflict, European states are underrepresented or not even present at all, even though it is Europe that is in Syria's immediate neighborhood – and is most affected by the flow of refugees. The EU and its member states cannot afford to act like a diplomatic dwarf.


What is more, the opportunities that the Treaty of Lisbon allows for are not even that radical. Why don't we go a step further and decide foreign policy issues by a vote of qualified majority? In how many important questions would Germany have been likely to be overruled? German foreign policy has nothing to fear. By starting an initiative towards a decision-making model based on qualified majority, Berlin could send a powerful signal that underlines Germany's commitment to concerted European action.


The EU does enjoy the advantage of a comprehensive toolbox, even if this box is not very well-filled. Brussels can send not only military troops, but also experts in the fields of constitutional reform, law enforcement, and many other areas. Especially crisis prevention and rebuilding efforts in our neighboring regions will become even more important – and we are not sufficiently prepared. Europe's contribution to the post-civil war stabilization efforts in Libya in 2011, for instance, has been absurdly small.


To make sure our efforts are adequately funded, we should consider introducing a new foreign policy guideline such as a "three percent criterion" for more international commitment: we should spend at least 3 % of our GDP for crisis prevention, development assistance, and defense. There is an unmet 2 % goal for defense expenditures, an unmet 0.7 % goal for development cooperation, and other small budgetary items. A holistic discussion of the necessary expenditures would truly benefit the public discourse on foreign policy.


Second, European integration in defense matters must move forward. Despite several steps in the right direction, the defense policies of EU member states suffers from fragmentation. Large sums of money are spent inefficiently and ineffectively on a policy area that has remained largely excluded from the benefits of integration.


The Netherlands' willingness to put significant military units under the command of the German armed forces has been a welcome step. Other projects, such as the European Air Transport Command, are rightly considered successful examples of deeper cooperation. Smaller bilateral and multilateral projects have been initiated. But what are the next milestones? Essential steps of military integration will not be feasible without a classic "top-down" decision-making model at the level of EU heads of state and heads of government.


In any case, the need for action is enormous: gradually increasing national defence budgets will not be enough to fill the significant gaps. Our Eastern NATO partners understandably fear for their territorial integrity. And the United States will perhaps not fulfill its role as Europe's protector the way it used to, which leaves us with a dramatically different strategic situation. Don't get me wrong: creating a European defence union is a long-term task. We will still need NATO and the support of the United States. This, however, does not at all reduce the importance of working towards a defence union.


Third, there are other important measures that can be promoted by German foreign and security policy within the EU framework.


On the one hand, we must aim for clear European positions towards a Trump-led United States. When it comes to issues that are of crucial importance to us – ranging from the Iran Deal to the Paris climate agreement – we need to relentlessly lobby for common European standpoints. In addition, we must ensure that no EU member state makes any deals with the US government that would come at the expense of other EU member states. We face the risk that the United States will pursue a foreign policy that is focused on bilateral transactions with individual EU members – an approach that would weaken the EU in its entirety.


On the other hand, there exists an urgent need for action to strengthen homeland security. We have the Schengen Zone, but there is a serious lack of cross-border collaboration of police and intelligence services. This question – whether we can fight terrorism while having open borders – will determine if Europe's citizens believe and trust in the EU's capability to provide security and retain control. This is why small-scale improvements in police cooperation simply do not suffice. When will we have a European FBI, expanding Interpol's role?


Thus, there are several obvious tasks where German initiatives and actions can and should strengthen EU foreign and security policy. As Henry Kissinger famously said, Germany is too small for the world and too big for Europe. There is only one solution for this dilemma: only with Europe, we are big enough for the world and no longer too big for Europe.


Wolfgang Ischinger is chairman of the Munich Security Conference and teaches at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. A longer version of this piece was published in German in the volume "Deutschlands Neue Verantwortung" [Germany’s New Responsibility], edited by Wolfgang Ischinger and Dirk Messner, published by Econ in February 2017.

27 March 2017, by Wolfgang Ischinger