Munich Security Conference: the opportunity to plead for a stronger Europe.
©Munich Security Conference
Last February, at the Munich Security Conference (MSC), political leaders from all around the world met to discuss questions of international security. At this occasion, French president Emmanuel Macron recalled his strong will to build a proper European defence. This time however, he even declared being impatient with the achievement of a genuine European dynamic in this strategic area. Some headway has been made in the recent years, as witnessed by the creation of the European Defence Fund (EDF) in June 2017 and the European Intervention Initiative (EII) in June 2018. But for now, one can only deplore the lack of common political will in the EU in support of a European defence. The project is not limited to the sole ambition of a European army: it reflects a dynamic – mainly driven by France – to establish a European strategy. MSC was the perfect meeting to understand each state’s position regarding global security matters. The different speeches raised concerns for the future and showed how urgent it is for the Union to gain its political and strategic independence.
In terms of security, NATO traditionally remains the trusted and privileged organisation by many European countries. For historical reasons and fear of jeopardizing their protection, they are not planning to rely on another politico-military organisation.¹ For example, a country such as Poland can hardly picture itself out of the Alliance and out of the American fold. In recent months however, there has been a growing debate about the effectiveness of the Alliance. In an interview to The Economist on October 2019, the French head of state characterised the Alliance as “brain dead”.² At the time of his talk with the British journalists, the Alliance had a need for more concertation between its members. The Trump administration had just decided to remove the American troops from Syria on 7 October 2019. Two days after, Turkey had launched an offensive against the Kurds in north-eastern Syria. All of that without any previous discussion with NATO partners.
It seemed to be unexpected for a head of state to acknowledge the dysfunction of political discussion within NATO. Some political leaders may have feared it could discredit the Alliance's ability to deal with threats. In his speech to the Körber Foundation in Berlin on 7 November 2019, Jen Stoltenberg – Secretary General of NATO – tried to respond pragmatically. He emphasised the efforts made by the European Union (EU) to improve its defence capabilities but affirmed that “the EU cannot defend Europe”. For her part, Chancellor Merkel declared that she did not share the French President’s point of view. Just like Central and Eastern Europe countries, Germany relies on NATO and refuses to recognise the potential fragility of the organisation. Even in Brussels, Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen recalled that “the history of Europe can’t be told without NATO”.³ President Macron took responsibility for his words and assured that, from now on, he hoped that the strategic objectives of the alliance would be further discussed. With his “wake-up call”, he may have tried to convince other European NATO members to support the European defence project. And at this year’s MSC, he stressed the importance of taking real action on this front.
In Munich, China has been at the forefront of the discussions. Most of US political leaders present explained that their country currently considers it as a threat. For instance, the US Defense Secretary, Mark Thomas Esper, affirmed that he would devote his speech to the “Pentagon’s top concern”: China. But he also declared twice that “the United States does not seek conflict with China”. ⁴ On the same page, Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, emphasised the dangerous influence of China in the field of 5G. She spoke of the giant Huawei as a way for the Chinese regime to “export its digital autocracy” and “[threaten] economic retaliation against those who do not adopt their technologies”.⁵ As for the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he dedicated time to denounce China’s behaviour in international trade and relations and stated that “the death of the transatlantic alliance is grossly over exaggerated”. That was a clear response to the French President “brain dead” characterisation. But Mike Pompeo added that “the West is winning” and “we are collectively winning”. That seems to contradict not only the theme of the conference – “Westlessness” – but also the general vision of the transatlantic relationship.
For almost three years, the French president has been trying to convince his European allies of the importance to build a sovereign Europe. A sovereign state – or in this case the EU – is not subject to any authority, which is a form of independence. But it can be part of international organisations and sign treaties with other states. Therefore, the ability to control its national territory and the population therein is the key characteristic of a sovereign state. Consequently, sovereignty is intrinsically linked to defence. That is why President Macron would like a European army: He wants the EU to act autonomously and have its own military capacity. In his Sorbonne speech on 26 September 2017, he declared that “what Europe lacks most today, this Europe of Defence, is a common strategic culture.” He added that “in the field of defence, our objective must be Europe's capacity for autonomous action, as a complement to NATO.”⁷ On 18 November 2018, during a visit to the German Bundestag, he said that “[the] Franco-German responsibility consists in providing Europe with the tools of this new invention, the tools of its sovereignty”.⁸ Since running for president, Macron has always asserted his willingness to consolidate the EU as a power in key areas such as defence or technology. Consequently, his intervention at this year’s MSC was much awaited. Especially since he recently explained, in his speech on defence and deterrence strategy (7 February 2020), that he believes that the French nuclear forces have a “European dimension”.⁹ Indeed, it is more feasible for France to carry the ambition of an independent European defence than for other EU states, which are all dependent on their American ally in terms of nuclear deterrence.
Following his intervention, President Macron answered questions from MSC President Wolfgang Ischinger and the audience. During the session, French president did not discredit the role of NATO but argued in favour of strong military cooperation at the European level.
"We need to develop our own strategy. We don't have the same geographic conditions (as the US), not the same ideas about social equilibrium, about social welfare. There are ideals we have to defend. Mediterranean policy: that is a European thing, not a transatlantic thing, and the same goes for Russia — we need a European policy, not just a transatlantic policy”, said Macron.¹º
Obviously, he argues for more sovereignty and a proper European foreign policy. He recalls that, to him, the union should put defence as a priority to become truly sovereign. The establishment of a common European army could be an achievement along these lines. The objective would be to ensure EU security through NATO and this European defence. But sovereignty also applies to the economic, financial, capital markets, digital and sustainable development fields. The more the EU is consolidated and integrated in these areas – the best example is monetary integration within the euro area – the more sovereign it will be.
In terms of foreign policy, EU states work together through the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Formerly European Policy Co-operation, it was established as a CSFP by the second pillar of the Maastricht Treaty (1993). Then, the creation of the office of High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy by the Lisbon Treaty (2009), has given a face to the CFSP. Also, the Common Security and Defence Policy was brought as a new instrument to the CFSP. This policy has multiple objectives – crisis management, peacekeeping and conflict prevention – and its ultimate aim is to provide a defence policy for all members of the Union. But the deployment of states' military capabilities, i.e. armed troops and equipment, is based on a voluntary basis. States are therefore free to choose to join in military operations under EU aegis, and thereby, whether they wish to participate in the common defence. On the other hand, one can see they cooperate, but no real convergence is achieved in the field of foreign policy. They tend to keep control over this area, which has been visible by their lack of a common diplomatic position during the Yugoslav war (1991-2001), and then the Ukrainian crisis (since 2013). Only two EU countries – France and Germany – took part in the negotiation of the Minsk II agreement to end the war in Donbass (12 February 2015). For an effective foreign policy, all EU members need to agree on their common strategic interests. Macron thinks they must also adopt a common position, even if it is not in line with that of their American ally (as on the Iranian nuclear issue).
According to the French president, the EU cannot blindly embrace the American position on Russia anymore. Without a strictly European strategy towards Russia, it would be difficult to work for an alignment of EU countries' military capabilities. Russia is geographically situated in Europe, which means the EU has much more to fear from an armed conflict with Russia than the United States does (because they are on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean). That is why a trusting dialog with the Russian government is fundamental for EU’s security. Hence, a proper European foreign policy would enable Europe to ensure its security vis-à-vis Russia and, in the long term, to create its own military force. Macron pleads for a balanced partnership with the United States while at the same time emancipating from it. Fact is that there is still a strong Atlanticist tendency in the EU, mainly in the Eastern and Scandinavian countries. Convincing them to rely more on the EU and less on the United States, their long-standing ally, will not be an easy task.
On another hand, the French head of state discussed the risk of the EU falling behind in the field of digital infrastructures. The Union invests much in research, innovation and digitalization, but one can observe with bitterness that the GAFAMs (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) are all American massive corporations.¹¹ Even though European groups Nokia and Ericsson are also developing 5G networks, they cannot provide as many and have fewer resources than the Chinese Huawei (the current leader in 5G networks). That is why the EU should have the temerity to strengthen its position in a world where, today, it must rely on partners to be equipped with modern technology. Macron said it in Munich: having a European cloud, strong artificial intelligence technologies or 5G networks large enough to serve all 27 states are matters that need to be worked on. In the long term, it is certainly in the EU’s interest to build up her own momentum in the domain of technologies.
As a result, many international concerns were addressed at the MSC. U.S. politicians have designated China as their primary concern. The transatlantic partnership has been addressed only to allay fears of its failure. President Macron, for his part, was clear about his position on the EU. He wants to give concrete expression to the European defence strategy was very apparent. He has the ambition
that Europe should be sovereign in several areas, from security to technology, climate and foreign policy. Now the EU needs a common impetus. Germany could be a major supporter of the French proposals if it clearly stated its position on these issues. The pandemic crisis in which the world is currently immersed will probably bring about necessary transformations in the union. More than ever, EU countries must seize the opportunity to become stronger together.
¹ “The Alliance’s creation was part of a broader effort to serve three purposes: deterring Soviet expansionism, forbidding the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe through a strong North American presence on the continent, and encouraging European political integration.” <www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/declassified_139339.htm>
² President Macron declared this in an interview conducted by The Economist on October 21st, 2019.
The future of the EU. Emmanuel Macron warns Europe: NATO is becoming brain-dead, The Economist, November 7, 2019,
³ Europe address - Dr Ursula von der Leyen President-elect of the European Commission - Allianz Forum (Pariser Platz),
⁴ As Prepared Remarks by Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper at the Munich Security Conference, February 15, 2020,
⁵ Speaker Pelosi Remarks at Munich Security Conference, February 14, 2020,
⁶ The West Is Winning. Speech, Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State, February 15, 2020, <www.state.gov/the-west-is-winning/>
⁷ Discours d'Emmanuel Macron pour une Europe souveraine, unie, démocratique, September 26, 2017,
⁸ Discours du Président de la République au Bundestag à Berlin, cérémonie commémorative, November 18, 2018,
⁹ “Our nuclear forces play a deterrent role of their own, particularly in Europe. They strengthen Europe's security by their very existence and in this respect have a truly European dimension.” From Discours du Président Emmanuel macron sur la stratégie de défense et de dissuasion devant les stagiaires de la 27ème promotion de l’Ecole de guerre, February 7, 2020,
¹⁰ Discours à la Conférence de Munich sur la sécurité 2020, February 15, 2020, <www.elysee.fr/front/pdf/elysee-module-15200-fr.pdf>
¹¹ See the InvestEU Programme. For the 2021-2027 period, it is expected to mobilise at least €650 billion in total investment,