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PARIS — Listen closely to French Defense Minister Florence Parly and it almost sounds like France is going to miss Donald Trump’s bullying at June’s NATO summit.
It’s not that Parly, or her president, Emmanuel Macron, don’t welcome the United States’ return to diplomatic form under President Joe Biden. They are “delighted,” she says.
However, France is also worried the renewed transatlantic lovefest will slow, or even halt, an awakening among Europeans on the need to spend more on defense — something Trump encouraged at higher, harsher volume than his predecessors.
“In the Euro-Atlantic relationship there’s a constant, which is that the Europeans must handle more of their security themselves,” Parly told POLITICO in an interview in her office in Paris.
“The very brutal discourse on burden-sharing that President Trump had, it was brutal in form but it also expressed a reality,” she said. “I’m absolutely sure that the Biden administration also considers that the Europeans must take on more.”
France is the EU’s military big hitter. Following Brexit, it’s the only member state with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and nuclear weapons, and is unmatched within the bloc in its ability to globally deploy substantial conventional forces.
Yet, European partners accuse Paris of insensitivity to their security needs, of seeking to impose its strategic view and multiply its strength through them. Critics, on both sides of the Atlantic, decry French appeals for stronger European defense as a threat to NATO’s unity or a scheme to prop up France’s arms and aerospace industry.
Parly forcefully disputes that. She insists a more robust European defense is essential to bolster NATO, and says European allies cannot brush aside fundamental changes in the strategic context of the transatlantic relationship, regardless of who’s in the White House.
“The strategic interest of the United States has structurally moved to Asia and, whatever the Europeans may wish, that’s a data point,” Parly said.
“If we want to fully play our role, we should continue being good allies and keep pushing our defense effort forward,” she added. “We Europeans being stronger makes a positive contribution to the Atlantic Alliance, it’s not a risk of weakening this alliance, it’s the opposite.”
Europe’s contribution will be one of the delicate issues NATO leaders will discuss – in a more serene atmosphere without Trump – at their summit in Brussels on June 14. The leaders are expected to launch an update of the alliance’s decade-old strategic concept, outlining NATO’s objectives and key security tasks with an eye toward 2030.
The raft of challenges includes Washington’s increasing security focus on China, which is not shared by many allies; belligerent Russian activity in Ukraine, Belarus and beyond; arms control agreements that directly impact European security nearing their expiry date; instability to Europe’s south and southeast; new cyber threats; and internal rifts, notably with Turkey.
Failure to adequately respond will call into the question the relevance of alliance, which Macron, two years ago, warned was experiencing “brain death.”
Still, while France is advocating for ramping up European defense, it is not sold on NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s proposal to increase NATO’s common funding.
“All this money is money that won’t go toward increasing national budgets and a European defense effort that benefits NATO,” Parly said. “And to do what? No one is able to tell you. We have to double the budget and then we’ll think about what to do with the money?”
During the interview, Parly avoided using the phrase “European strategic autonomy” except to say that it had frightened some allies. That concept has been pushed by France as a boost for NATO’s European pillar, but some allies fear it risks fragmenting finite European defense resources and drawing political energy from NATO.
Parly takes issue with that, rattling off all the NATO operations — from deploying as part of the alliance’s boosted presence at the border between Estonia and Russia, to navy patrols in the Mediterranean and air policing over the Baltic States — where France actively participates, and the firepower and readiness it brings to the alliance.
“I continue not to understand this eternal debate on the potential competition between NATO and the Europeans,” Parly said. “We Europeans have our own voice, and we have a lot of common interests with the United States but it doesn’t mean we don’t have our own specific issues to champion.”
As an example, she pointed to China, where, despite a recent hardening of positions, the Europeans don’t necessarily share Washington’s level of concern. “If the United States and China are in a form of confrontation, do we Europeans want to be in a confrontation?” Parly asked.
The speed with which the Biden administration announced it was withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan, without much consultation with NATO allies who have troops there, rattled many Europeans. It served as a reminder that, although the U.S. tone may have changed, its perception of its national interests will continue to drive policy decisions.
While Parly laments that ramping up European defense is still “progressing too slowly,” she says there has been “incredible progress.”
France has been building a coalition of the European willing with the European Intervention Initiative [EI2] launched in 2018, and the deployment of special operations forces by a handful of European countries in the Sahel within the Takuba Force.
“There are countries that are capable and willing and they shouldn’t be held back,” Parly said.
Among those countries are Sweden, Estonia and the Czech Republic who have deployed fighting troops within Takuba. Parly says visits to the Sahel with European colleagues went a long way to showing them the security imperatives in the region.
“What I found extraordinary when we debriefed together before we left Gao [a city in Mali], my Czech counterpart told me: ‘We Europeans have two security issues, the East and the South, and the right approach is not to say that we Czechs, since we are close to the East we will take care of the East, and you French closer to the Sahel you will handle the South, the right approach is to do it together,’” Parly said. “What he said illustrates wonderfully the common strategic culture. It’s a work in progress but it’s no longer just a concept.”
However, defense experts caution that building a European strategic culture will take much longer.
“European strategic culture is not French strategic culture,” said Claudia Major, head of the research division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs think tank. “You don’t build strategic culture in three years with eight countries [in the EI2].”
Besides operational reluctance, attempts to build up European defense capacity in other areas can also prove troublesome.
Europe’s biggest proposed joint project is the Franco-German-Spanish partnership to build a next-generation fighter jet platform called FCAS at an expected cost of over €100 billion. It’s been dogged by financing, intellectual property and work-share issues, and still awaits approval from the German parliament.
Parly says it is the German government’s responsibility to see it through.
“The ball is in the camp of the German parliament,” Parly said. “I fully trust my German counterpart Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and I fully trust Chancellor Merkel to lead this process through parliament till the end.”