Can a Future EU Defence Policy Be Found in Macron’s Intervention in the Eastern Mediterranean?9 min read

 In Opinion, Politics, Russia
Both the Turkish incursion into Cypriot territorial waters and Russian military action in the Baltic sea region in the summer mean that the Eastern Mediterranean now sits alongside Moscow as an issue of geo-strategic importance for the EU.

At the same time as Emmanuel Macron made his naval intervention in August in support of Greece, Moscow initiated a military exercise in the Baltic sea region named Ocean Shield 2020, which involved more than 30 ships of various types, naval aircraft, coastal air defence and Marine units according to the International Centre for Defence and Security think tank in Estonia.

Not dissimilar to the Cypriot call for a firmer EU response to Turkey’s actions, Sweden has mobilised its military over the last three years in response to what it sees as an intensity of Russian military activity in north-eastern Europe on a scale not seen since the Cold WarRussian armed forces have conducted tailor-made operations and tested long-range weapons systems in the Baltic sea region, according to Sweden’s defence minister, Peter Hultqvist, speaking at the UK NATO Heads of Mission’s Forum in June. In response, Stockholm deployed four naval warships and an unspecified number of ground forces and warplanes with the objective of defending the island of Gotland.

It seems clear from these recent military actions by Turkey and Russia that the EU faces a dual-security issue on its eastern periphery. The case of the French response to the Turkish-Greek clash over Cyprus may provide answers as to how Brussels should act to deter future acts of interference towards its most vulnerable member states.

Macron leads a new EU defence policy initiative in Cyprus

Emmanuel Macron’s decision to send French naval vessels into the Eastern Mediterranean in August in support of Greece represents an attempt to respond to EU failure to commit to hard sanctions against Turkey for its offshore drilling projects. It also serves the French president’s ambition to transform the EU into an organisation capable of taking responsibility for its own security affairs.

A coordinated European approach towards matters concerning the continent’s security would mark a radical step in the transfer of power from a policy area traditionally kept at a nation-state level to a supranational level of decision-making. Nonetheless, the European Council has called on member states to do much more in areas of defence and foreign policy. Despite Polish concerns that moves to expand EU capabilities in foreign affairs may diminish the role of NATO as the guarantor of post-Cold War stability, member states approved a package of €13 billion in defence spending as part of the new EU budget. Revisiting the concept of a common European approach to defence signals a reversal of the system that has maintained stability on the continent since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

NATO as the primary security guarantor in post-Cold War Europe

After 1991, it was the transatlantic alliance of NATO, rather than the EU, that took the responsibility as the primary security guarantor. It follows the rationale that the presence of US military forces on the continent would prevent the resurgence of a single power and keep the Americans from being dragged into another European conflict.

When it came to the outbreak of the Bosnian War in 1992, NATO underwent an overhaul of its capabilities to transform itself from an organisation based on collective defence into a system of collective security. Specifically, it established an approach based on crisis management in order to secure a peaceful outcome to the hostilities between the Bosnian Serbs and the ethnic Bosnian population. The adoption of this new capability allowed the Alliance to endure as an organisation beyond the demise in 1991 of its original raison d’etre to protect its member states from the Soviet threat. This had the implication of making European security reliant on American military involvement. It was NATO – not the EU – that led the intervention in Kosovo in 1999.

The reasoning for the reform of NATO’s internal structures is that, despite the fall of the communist system, policymakers remained sceptical of Russian intentions towards Europe. Officials from the US State Department were alarmed when they heard that Margaret Thatcher, the then UK prime minister, saw the Soviet Union as an essential balance to Germany in a discussion with President Bush in February 1990. In 1992, the UK Foreign Office warned Thatcher’s successor, John Major, against supporting Russia’s accession to the European Community (today the European Union) because of concern that Moscow would go on to ‘dominate’ Europe given the strength of its nuclear arsenal.

Maintaining the credibility of NATO after the Soviet collapse supplanted consideration of the issue of Russia’s place in the European security system on both sides of the Atlantic. This was all but confirmed when the Chirac presidency reversed Mitterrand’s foreign policy, which sought to establish a pan-European as opposed to an Atlantic post-Cold War security system, by integrating French forces into NATO command structures in 1995. However, NATO is purely a military alliance and thus limited in its strategic ability to resolve Europe’s regional conflicts.

Can Macron’s intervention in Cyprus be a model for a future EU defence policy?

Macron’s military action in the Eastern Mediterranean shows that the European Union has at its disposal the ability to complement economic leverage with hard power when confronting its regional crises. It’s already clear that Brussels is well-equipped in terms of exercising soft power in its relations with Turkey. Last year, in response to Ankara’s demands to acquire control over Cypriot oil and gas resources, the European Investment Bank (EIB) cut a decade-long’s worth of Turkish infrastructure projects totalling €19 billion.

The EIB, which serves to contribute towards the integration, balanced development and economic and social cohesion of EU member states, has played a central role in the process of Turkish accession to the EU. It began to provide financial contributions to Ankara in areas of infrastructure, small-and-medium sized enterprises and the corporate sector in 2009. This level of economic engagement has proven to be an effective approach to forging closer ties between Brussels and Turkey as a visa liberalisation dialogue was launched in 2013.

However, while encouraging EU accession, the EIB’s financial contributions fail to address the democratic backsliding that has been taking place in the country since Erdogan came to power in 2014. The General Affairs Council of the Council of the European Union as a result decided to freeze accession negotiations in 2018. Moreover, Austria, which has its own history of imperial rivalry with Turkey in south-eastern Europe, has signalled its intention to call for the break off accession talks altogether at the next EU summit in October.

Despite opposition within some EU circles, Ankara remains committed to consolidating its position in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was reported in August that Erdogan dispatched a ship neighbouring Cypriot waters with the capability to drill 3,000 metres down at a depth of 12,000 metres. France’s military intervention in support of Greece over the dispute with Cyprus represents a recognition both in Paris and Berlin that the EU needs to do more than just pursue a strategy towards Turkey based on economic leverage.

If the EU replicates its carrot-and-stick approach towards Turkey in the case of Russia, a brief look at the history of Russian foreign policy since 1991 shows that a common European strategy on defence may provide scope for forging successful relations with Moscow.

Russian foreign policy and the potential benefits of European-led multilateralism

Like Turkey, Russia is a powerful actor with a history of empire that lies on Europe’s periphery. But unlike Turkey, it distrusts NATO. In a letter sent to then US President Bill Clinton in 1993, Yeltsin stated that he opposed any expansion of NATO into Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Yet the Alliance proceeded to ignore Yeltsin by committing to the process of Polish, Hungarian and Czech NATO admission in the Brussels Summit Declaration in 1994.

However, NATO’s presence in Central and Eastern Europe has led to a situation where Russia is pursuing a ‘neo-imperial’ policy towards Poland according to Warsaw’s new National Security Strategy before the United States decided to send an additional 1,000 troops into Polish territory. The fact that Sweden felt the need to increase its defence spending further suggests that the process of NATO eastern enlargement has struggled to ease tensions between the West and Russia.

On the other hand, a single European-led defence policy may provide the conditions for which a formalised East-West strategic dialogue on security issues could be established. Since 1991, Russia’s foreign policy has been consistent in its support of multilateralism insofar as it guarantees its security while minimising principles of democratic governance. Gorbachev wanted to create a common European home that envisaged a system of security cooperation from Lisbon to Vladivostok. And Yeltsin looked to the United Nations and its principle of sovereignty enshrined by international law as justification for the Russian intervention in Chechnya in 1994.

The case of the ongoing crisis in Belarus finds that the notion of an East-West strategic dialogue is being invoked once more. The personal diplomacy between Putin, Merkel and Macron represents a recognition on the EU side that Moscow does have influence over Lukashenko and the Belarusian economy. Unlike the experience of NATO eastward expansion that has stoked East-West tensions as noted above, the example of the Putin-Merkel-Macron discussions demonstrates that the EU is in a better position than the transatlantic military alliance to facilitate a diplomatic resolution to regional crises that concern Russian interests.

And the concept that the EU should assume greater responsibility when it comes to confronting Moscow is beginning to prove its worth according to political thinking from the Baltic region. The Lithuanian foreign minister, Linas Linkevicius, was quick to point out that the EU needs to apply hard power in addition to the system of NATO deterrence enshrined by Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty as part of the strategy towards Russia.

However, although securing €13 billion in defence spending, EU member states will have to reach agreement on the scope of EU competency in defence that safeguards the sovereignty of the EU-27 while, at the same time, protects Central and Eastern European interests to maintain the security role of NATO.

What can be learned from the Cypriot crisis when it comes to confronting Russia?

The lesson of Macron’s intervention in the Eastern Mediterranean shows that a reinvigorated defence role of the EU can create new opportunities for diplomatic solutions to regional crises. The French-led carrot-and-stick EU initiative has led to a situation where Greece is ready for talks with Turkey after Ankara withdrew an exploration vessel in a disputed area of the region. What the early diplomatic success in the Turkish-Greek clash over Cyprus demonstrates is that a strategy that combines hard and soft power may hold the key to conducting relations with Turkey.

Given the importance that Russia has attached to multilateralism in its foreign policy since 1991, it is no exaggeration to say that a similar approach should be explored in the case of Central and Eastern European security. Success will depend on whether EU member states choose to pursue this more nuanced approach than the current strategy of an American military presence in Europe in the form of the NATO alliance.

Featured image: EU flag and the army / Amanda Sonesson
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