Is the UK the Security Leader Europe Needs?
Although the Franco-German strategic partnership is in trouble, an unlikely candidate to take the lead in European security matters has now appeared.
When news broke on January 24 that German chancellor Olaf Scholz relented to demands by Ukraine and its closest European allies to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, Europe’s heads of state weren’t exactly lining up to congratulate Scholz for his decisive leadership. Instead, many people fear the decision came too late and due to outside pressure—not because of German resolve to show a united front against Russia
Honoring the Élysée Treaty’s sixtieth anniversary, Scholz met with French president Emmanuel Macron last Sunday to toast, walk and talk about European security, energy, and economic policy, in an attempt to squelch criticism that the Franco-German partnership is faltering.
Meanwhile, former British prime minister Boris Johnson received a hero’s welcome in Kyiv, as if he had never left Downing Street. The UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force, which connects the Nordic and Baltic countries through British security assurances, has also lately been seen as a viable alternative to full NATO membership for Finland and Sweden, given Turkey’s opposition to NATO’s expansion on the disputed claims that Sweden supports Kurdish terrorist groups.
Although the Franco-German strategic partnership is in trouble, an unlikely candidate to take the lead in European security matters has now appeared: Great Britain. The first major European power to send tanks to Ukraine, Britain has once again become the leader in European security policy, despite having left Europe politically. Britain’s post-Brexit domestic political challenges don’t seem to have dampened the ambitious foreign policy of a successive row of British governments, each one positioning itself as a staunch supporter of Ukraine. This has won the backing of the EU’s eastern flank members, all of whom worry they’ll become the next victims of Russian aggression, should Ukraine fall.
Although Britain has won the hearts of the EU’s most pro-Ukrainian countries, Germany is shouldering increasing criticism for not contributing enough to the Ukrainian cause. Yet the critics have been less harsh with France, whose prewar economy wasn’t as tied to Russia as was Germany.
In fact, substantial differences separate France and Germany. On geostrategic issues and the meaning of what both call a “sovereign” Europe, Germany is more attached to NATO and the United States, while France adheres to the Gaullist tradition of Europe as a mediating and “balancing” power among the great world powers. Differences also abound in energy policy: France continues to support nuclear energy, while Germany is in the final phase of denuclearization.
The issue over sending German tanks to Ukraine underscores a more significant question about the future of European leadership, symbolized by the famous misquote often ascribed to former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger: “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” The looming question on everyone’s minds is the future of U.S. commitment to European security. Without Washington’s nuclear umbrella, would Germany seek to develop its own nuclear capabilities, leading to a more sinister Franco-German relationship? Germans can’t be sure the United States will continue to extend its nuclear umbrella over Germany unconditionally. No American president will risk nuclear war on behalf of Berlin under any circumstance. Having another nuclear power, Great Britain, firmly committed to European defense could allay German concerns and diminish the prospects of an escalating rivalry between Paris and Berlin.
Sixty years ago, Charles de Gaulle characterized the postwar Franco-German reconciliation as the “miracle of our time,” following the nationalistic excesses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In retrospect, de Gaulle’s optimism was not naive, as the Élysée Treaty he signed with Konrad Adenauer in 1963 has survived even George Pompidou and Chancellor Willy Brandt’s ostpolitik era of “exemplary but non-exclusive” relations.
With journalists and political pundits focused on Germany’s Leopard tanks and Boris back in Kyiv, the real question we ought to ask ourselves is if what we’re witnessing is actually the first act of the British returning to the EU fold—this time as heroes who have led European efforts to save Ukraine. This certainly would be, in the words of le général, a true miracle of our time.
Diana Mjeshtri is Policy Analyst at Impact Innovation Institute. Both are members of the Councilors Program at the Atlantic Council.
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