The US approach to withdrawal from Afghanistan raises new doubts about European and American cooperation. European Heads of Government were critical of the US‘s unilateral action. President Michel of the European Council wants to become strategically independent as soon as possible, he said last week.
According to Josep Borrell, EU foreign chief, this is the time to become military independence from the United States. Last weekend, he advocated a 50,000 European expedition army “that can occur in situations as we see today in Afghanistan”.
Yet, the Afghanistan crisis for Dick Zandee, defence expert at Institute Clingendael, is not a tipping point in the American-European relationship. “It only marks the lack of capacity and anticipation capacity that Europe has. That the US is increasingly letting Europe cap its own bean.”
According to Zandee, a break between Europe and the US is not the case. “There will be a lot of situations where we will keep up with America. But there will be a lot more that Europe should be able to do without the Americans. Now we’re still too dependent on US capabilities.”
According to him, the European Union must seize this crisis to become a serious military player. Former NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer agrees with him. “What becomes untenable is that Europe does not propose little, without the United States,” he said this week in the radio show 1 to 1.
The US is increasingly focusing on Asia and the struggle with China, rather than Europe‘s interests. “Afghanistan has shown that Biden, after Trump and partly Obama, defines the vital interests of the US more closely than what we have always assumed,” said De Hoop Scheffer.
That means that Europe must save itself in its own ‘backyard‘: the Middle East and especially Africa. Several European countries operate militarily in the Sahel region. Zandee: “The idea is that these countries can take the lead themselves, whether it’s within the EU or in smaller collaborations.”
There are no US troops in the Sahel, which makes it unlikely that the US or NATO will help Europeans there. “I think that also plays part in Borrell‘s and others considerations: there may be other areas where we should be able to do it ourselves.”
Since 2016, the EU has been encouraging Member States to cooperate more militarily, although divisions between countries slow down. “In addition, the problem is that every country is investing on its own,” says Zandee. “Operation and maintenance will be expensive if you all have different weapons systems. If you buy all the same, there’s a hit to win.”
Zandee believes that the EU can play a greater role in this type of capacity development. “But for an operation like the evacuation from Kabul, such a large, viscous organization as the EU is too slow. To do this, countries need to move together in occasion coalitions.”
‘Europe can’t do this right now‘
De Hoop Scheffer also advocated coalitions from two to four countries in 1 to 1, which could intervene quickly if necessary. “Europe can’t do that at all right now. We should not form a European army, but put considerably more money into our defence.”
In addition to larger investments, more cooperation between countries is also needed, the Belgian Prime Minister De Croo also sees. For situations such as the evacuation from Kabul, he advocates more coordination and mutual assistance. “In terms of cooperation and defence, we as Europe still have a lot of steps to take,” he said to broadcaster VRT.
Zandee is currently more enthusiastic to build European capacity than before, especially in Western and Southern Europe. “But the question is whether that can be sustained in a longer period of time. There only needs to be an economic crisis like in 2008, and plans go into the fridge.”
Still, he is optimistic that steps will be taken this time. “Because the pressure is there, and will stay there. Europe is constantly pushing the facts by America, China and Russia.”