x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

As the US looks inward, only Europeans can save Europe

To save Europe: either Germany ups its role - which is distasteful for many European countries and for which the Germans seem to have little ambition - or Washington addresses the security vacuum around Europe's southern and eastern periphery.

The French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has given a remarkable - and very sobering - interview to The New York Times on the state of his country's armed forces as France seeks to put the collapsed state of Mali back together again.

The minister spoke of his shock at finding that France, a country with a strong aeronautical tradition, has failed to develop surveillance drones. Why, he asks, did his country not anticipate what the battlefield of the future would look like? The result is that it has only two drones deployed in Mali. Almost all its aerial intelligence is provided by the Americans.

The same gaps are present in in-flight refuelling and transport. Refuelling capacity has now been provided by Washington, after some hesitation, while Britain and other countries are helping with airlift. None of this cooperation, however, can disguise the fact that France is basically on its own in Mali, as it tries to organise a smooth exit.

Two issues were on the defence minister's mind: with the US retreating from its role as global policeman, and other European countries stretched in their military capabilities, France needs to upgrade its armed forces. But how to do this at a time of financial austerity?

The second concern was broader: how to stop Mali becoming a second Libya, where a successful Franco-British operation, with US support, to remove Muammar Qaddafi has led to chaos and the spread of looted Libyan weapons around the jihadists of the Sahara-Sahel region. With the Europeans in charge, it seems there has been precious little diplomatic follow-up. The guiding hand of Washington is sorely missed.

The fate of Tunisia, now apparently descending into ungovernability, can be added to the charge sheet against the Europeans. Tunisia is of deep concern to Europe, as it is the country which seemed most likely to fuse Islamic government, in the form of the ruling Ennahda party, with secular democracy. But there has been little aid from the other side of the Mediterranean.

Tunisian suspicions that France, the former colonial power, would be happier with a military regime not dissimilar to the rule of the ousted president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, have been fanned by the French interior minister, Manuel Valls, who described the government in Tunis as "Islamo-fascist".

Mr Le Drian's cry from the heart over French military preparedness marks a new stage in the realisation that Europe has to grow up fast to cope with a future on its own. The first came at the start of the current financial crisis, when the US, with an empty treasury, could not bail out European banks. The Europeans had to sort out their own problems. Now the gap in European defence capability is yawningly obvious.

During the years of the Cold War, western Europe enjoyed a comfortable "kidulthood", where the US took responsibility for security, dampening the age-old rivalries between its nations, and allowing economies to flourish. European countries may have lambasted the arrogance of Uncle Sam - but these were just teenage rebellions. Washington was there to ensure peace and security.

These days there is no threat of an invasion from Russia, and Washington wants to focus on the Asia-Pacific region. But instability is deepening along the southern shore of the Mediterranean, while civil war rages in Syria. All these will cause mass migrations and spread instability, for years and perhaps decades to come.

Britain and France are considered the only serious military powers in the European Union, but even they have seen their equipment and force numbers drastically reduced. The British defence cutbacks have become so severe - especially with soldiers still serving in Afghanistan - that the prime minister, David Cameron, is going to raid the overseas development budget to finance peacekeeping operations.

There is a simple answer as to who should take the lead in Europe, in defence and economic policy. Germany is the biggest and most successful country in the EU. Having kept wages under control, it has turned the rest of the euro zone into a lucrative market for its cars and machinery.

But Germany shows no sign of rising to the challenge. Pacifism is still the dominant mood in Germany, which sees no benefit in building up European military capacity. Far better to let the US take the strain. According to the German commentator Ulrich Speck, Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to keep the old order intact, despite the evident waning interest in the US towards Europe.

It is not easy for Germany. Nothing in its post-war history has prepared it for taking a leading role. Mrs Merkel is caricatured in Greece as Adolf Hitler for forcing an austerity-minded government on the Greeks. Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister, is trying to make a comeback in next week's elections by branding the outgoing technocratic government as a tool of Germany and Mrs Merkel herself as an East German commissar determined to destroy the Italian way of life.

As for the German people, the mood seems to be that taking more responsibility will mean paying for the sybaritic lifestyles of southern European and they are not ready to do that.

While the threat of collapse of the euro zone has abated somewhat, there are pitfalls in view. What if Mr Berlusconi returns to power next week as prime minister, despite clear admonitions from the German government that he is an unacceptable choice? This seems unlikely at the moment, but the mere prospect is enough to unnerve markets.

What is clear is that something has to change. Either Germany ups its role - which is distasteful for many European countries and for which the Germans seem to have little ambition - or Washington addresses the security vacuum around Europe's southern and eastern periphery. Inevitably, European leaders will be pressing for the US president, Barack Obama, to make up his mind on Syria and show some leadership.

But the president has made abundantly clear that he is interested in creating jobs at home, not prolonging the decade of war. It will be an anguished time in Europe.

 

aphilps@thenational.ae

On Twitter:@aphilps