The French president has caused something of a stir by criticising NATO, something that has been done increasingly over recent years, but never previous by a head of a member state of the alliance. This article examines the question it raises, presenting a few facts that are seldom presented alongside critical views whilst leaving the question unresolved, thus for readers to form their own ideas.

French president Emmanuel told The Economist that Europe is facing the ‘brain death of NATO’ because of the USA’s indifference and diminishing commitment to the transatlantic alliance.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was created in 1949 in response to the threat from the Soviet Union seeking to expand its power in Europe. Although an ally in WW2, they became at first a rival and then considered the adversary of the west during what came to be known as the Cold War. They set up their own Warsaw Pact military alliance in 1955 that included the majority of what had become communist countries of Eastern Europe during their post war occupation. The Warsaw Pact was disbanded shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 with many former members, except Russia and a few countries that remained closer to them, joining NATO very quickly. It was originally set up to promote ‘stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area’, therefore confronted with finding a new purpose after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

From the mid-1990s onward, NATO forces were deployed on missions in former Yugoslavia, actions that included launching air strikes to drive Serbia out of Kosovo and Afghanistan where they took on peacekeeping operations. However, as NATO membership grew, it has struggled to overcome Russian concerns that the alliance poses a threat on its borders, indeed within territories they hold that other states claim, such as Crimea.

What he said

In his interview, Macron told The Economist that the USA had failed to consult NATO before pulling forces out of northern Syria and questioned whether they are still committed to collective defence. Thus, Macron said America was turning its back on Europe since the absence of coordination on strategic decision making was exemplified by the recent unilateral USA and Turkish decisions. Turkey’s actions particularly raised all manner of questions about the fundamental security guarantees that NATO gives to all members. He asked what would happen if Syria attacked Turkey due to its incursion into their territory? In his opinion, with more members than ever and facing more complex security challenges, thus NATO is no longer fit for purpose.

Donald Trump’s hasty decision to pull most of the USA’s forces out of north-eastern Syria during October took European NATO members by surprise. It opened the way for Turkey, a key NATO member, to invade the border regions of Syria to create what it terms a security zone along its border. Kurdish forces, which had been helping the USA fight Islamic State (IS), were forced out of the area. Macron criticised NATO’s failure to respond to the Turkish offensive at the time it was happening. Macron has been at the forefront of moves to boost defence cooperation among European countries, but the EU’s other major military power, UK, still insists on the importance of NATO for European defence. Article 5 of the NATO charter stipulates that an attack on one member state will result in a collective response from the alliance. However, when asked whether that was still valid he responded by saying “I don’t know.” Angela Merkel said she disagreed with Macron’s ‘drastic words’.

NATO celebrates 70 years since its founding at a London summit next month, so has responded by saying the alliance remains strong. Nonetheless, Trump’s rash decision to pull forces out of north-eastern Syria last month had taken European NATO members by surprise although he has frequently accused European members of failing to provide a fair share of military expenditure and relying too heavily on the USA for their defence, also describing many of them as ‘delinquent’ for not spending adequately on their own defence. Trump’s own commitment to NATO has also been dented by his relationship with Vladimir Putin. A serious fear is that Trump could announce that the USA will not defend members which fall short of spending targets, something that would seriously damage the notion of collective defence central to NATO’s identity to the undoubted delight of Moscow. Russia, which sees NATO as a threat to security, welcomed Macron’s comments as ‘truthful words’. Their reaction was expressed by a foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, who wrote “Well said. Truthful words and ones that get to the nub of the matter. An accurate description of NATO’s current state,” she wrote on Facebook.

The reaction

Angela Merkel, speaking in Berlin during a visit by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, said that Macron “used drastic words – that is not my view of co-operation in Nato.” She nevertheless acknowledged there are problems, but did not think “such sweeping judgements are necessary.” Stoltenberg said the alliance remained strong: “European allies are stepping up, investing more in defence… The USA is increasing investments in Europe with more troops, more exercises. The reality is that we do work together. We have strengthened our collective defence. Any attempt to distance us from North America risks not only weakening the alliance, the transatlantic bond, but also weakening Europe.” He also added: “I welcome European unity. I welcome efforts to strengthen European defence. But European unity cannot replace transatlantic unity.” Only a few weeks before the London summit, Macron’s comments suggest it might not be an entirely harmonious celebration.

Macron is also quoted as saying that the alliance, “only works if the guarantor of last resort functions as such. I’d argue that we should reassess the reality of what NATO is in the light of the commitment of the United States.” He urged Europe to start considering itself a ‘geopolitical power’ in order to make certain it remained ‘in control’ of its own destiny. Macron said the USA is turning its back on Europe since the absence of coordination on major strategic decision making between the USA and NATO allies was exemplified by the recent unilateral decisions in Syria. Turkey’s actions especially raised all manner of questions about fundamental security guarantees given to all NATO members. Thus he raised that question as to what would happen if the Syrian government attacked Turkey? He has been an outspoken supporter of the Kurds thus is disturbed by the sudden policy shift by the USA that has complicated relations with fellow NATO member Turkey. He said: “You have partners together in the same part of the world and you have no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the United States and its NATO allies.” Macron, who is an enthusiastic supporter of the EU, said that Trump “doesn’t share our idea of the European project.” The threat to Europe has, in his view, coincided with the rise of China, the authoritarian turn of regimes in Russia and Turkey, the rise of China and Europe being undermined from within by Brexit and political instability.

Trump’s view of NATO

Media and a number of government spokespersons across Europe have been critical of Macron’s comments, but he is certainly right to draw attention to weaknesses. Trump is at the heart of the matter. During the 2016 election campaign, Trump categorised the alliance as being ‘obsolete’. He has constantly complained about the amount NATO members are spending on defence throughout his presidency. In a CNN interview in 201116 he said: “It’s costing us too much money and frankly they have to put up more money”. His frustration also appears to be embedded in a more fundamental hostility to the notion of multilateral cooperation that has united the post-WW2 USA led community of democracies that the EU now appears to be eclipsing as it forms its own democratic bloc. He also has a notable record of pulling out of multilateral arrangements such as the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership and at present campaigning against membership of the World Trade Organisation. He was also more than critical of recent ideas regarding the eventual formation of a European Defence Force, that the EU has said will neither be a rival to nor replacement of NATO. He does not like the EU, has expressed his view particularly through his support that some of us consider rude intervention in Brexit in which he has not wasted any effort in being critical of the EU.

Unless the USA ceases to follow its present policies and express negative views on European partners in the alliance, it is not unreasonable that at least one head of a member state speaks out. With the Warsaw Pact long gone and Russia still far more concerned with opposing the USA despite interference in the EU, it is not unreasonable to accept that should NATO cease to exist, the relationship between Russia, its sphere of influence and their EU neighbour might even improve. That is perhaps hard to prove, but NATO does to an extent stand in the way of knowing. Perhaps, had he not spoken so rashly, Macron’s words bear a truth that some people do not want to hear, although they may also be having doubts about NATO’s future? Time and the next election in the USA may tell. There are five EU member states which have declared their non-alignment with military alliances, thus are not NATO members: Austria, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Sweden. It is not, therefore, a ‘Pan European’ membership, although within the EU’s own defence structure all 28 present members except Ireland participate in at least one of its components. So it should not be surprising that France has called for the formation of a European army. What is surprising for some people is that most other Western European countries agree, most significantly that Germany concurs with the notion. Merkel has said explicitly that she agrees, former German Defence Minister and the new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, also agrees. Even Germany’s main centre-left party, the Social Democrats, agrees. The latter is particularly remarkable, given that the German left has been more opposed to anything to do with military matters for very obvious historical reasons. However, a European army would allow Germany to appear more powerful without the constitutional and political complications of restructuring the Bundeswehr which is strictly a defence force.

The EU position

A common EU defence policy is allowed by Article 42(2) of the Treaty of Lisbon, which however, clearly states the significance of national defence policy that includes either NATO membership or neutrality. In recent times, the EU has begun to put ambitious proposals to provide more resources, cooperation and development of capabilities into service. There is permanent structured cooperation (PESCO) that has 25 EU countries participating in a series of projects that include a European Medical Command, Maritime Surveillance System, common assistance for cyber security, rapid response teams and a joint EU intelligence school. There is a European Defence Fund (EDF) since June 2017, which is the first time the EU budget has been used to co-fund defence cooperation and is expected to be part of the EU’s next long term budget  for 2021-27. The EU reinforced cooperation with NATO in a large number of areas including cyber security, joint exercises and counter terrorism. There is also a plan to enable military mobility to make it far easier for military personnel and equipment to be deployed faster in response to crises in and across the EU. Furthermore, the EU already has 16 missions on three continents that have a broad variety of mandates, deploying more than 6,000 civilian and military personnel. There is also a new command and control structure (MPCC) set up to improve the EU’s crisis management.

At the NATO summit of 2014, the 23 EU states that are members of NATO committed themselves to spending 2% of GDP on defence by 2024, which the European Parliament has called on member states to live up to. The most recent NATO estimates showed that only six countries (Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and UK have actually spent that much on defence. Nonetheless, strengthening EU defence is not only about spending more money but doing so efficiently. Collectively they are the second largest defence spender in the world after the USA although an estimate of an average of €26.4 billion has wasted each year caused by duplication, overcapacity and obstructions to procurement. Consequently, over six times as many systems are used in Europe than in the USA, which is an area is which the EU can create conditions for better collaboration. If the EU intends to compete worldwide, it will need to consolidate its best capabilities since estimates show that by 2025 China will have become the second largest defence spender after the USA. With that in mind, the European Parliament has repeatedly called recommended full use of the potential offered by Article 42(2) of the Lisbon Treaty and other provisions that work towards a European defence union.


Is Macron right or wrong?

If the French president Emmanuel Macron is basing his views on what is actually happening as well as the new agenda set by Donald Trump that appears to defy the agreement between NATO members through his recent decisions and the outcome whereby another NATO member has acted entirely unilaterally, then the question he has put on the table is one to discuss. However, much of defence ideology is based on the principle of nonaggression beyond own borders, therefore Macrons comments do, in fact, draw us toward an immediate need for a firm EU policy on where it stands, whether or not the commitment to NATO should slowly be replaced by a European force and how to begin that process. Whilst Emmanuel Macron has attracted more criticism than praise for what he said, in reality we should be thanking him for drawing attention to something that needs very urgent and resolute attention.

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Brian Milne
A Social anthropologist who specialises in the human rights of children. In practice Brian Milne has worked on the street with 'street children', child labour, young migrants, young people with HIV and AIDS. Brian’s work has taken him to around 40 countries, most of them developing nations; at least four of them have been in a state of conflict or war, thus taking him to the front line in two. Brian’s theoretical work began with migration; working on, written and publishing on citizenship and generally best known as an 'expert' on the human rights of children. Brian has a broad knowledge of human and civil rights for all ages, environmental issues and has been politically active most of his life. An internationalist and supporter of the principle of European federalisation.

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