Does Biden’s debacle in Afghanistan mean that a European defence coalition is, after all, sensible? Clearly the US, under this president and the last, cannot be relied upon to defend mutual- (as opposed to self-) interests. Should the UK help build such an alliance in conjunction with a proposed EU defence force?
In the House of Commons debate on Afghanistan (Wednesday, 18th August) there were member speeches critical of the UK Government. Tom Tugendhat (Conservative) – a decorated, veteran soldier who served there – gave a moving one, urging Britain to join with European, Australasian and other allies to do more; Elias Ellwood (Conservative) – who lost his brother fighting the Taliban – supported this idea and urged all these countries to take more Afghan refugees to their safety. Elwood pointed out that it was not an endless war since no British soldiers had been killed for a number of years.
Naturally, opposition MPs were especially critical of Britain’s response, with Ed Davey (Liberal Democrat leader) announcing that the Prime Minister had further weakened the UK’s global importance. No doubt he meant that withdrawing from the EU was his first big step away from influence.
Johnson had already told us that the UK urged France, Germany, etc. to act together with Britain to help control the Afghan situation but was refused. We are sceptical about an EU/UK defence plan, the EU has already managed to avoid entangling itself with conflicts on its own borders in Bosnia and has hardly been a bastion of support to Ukraine, with Germany in particular refusing to shake a broomstick at Russia but rather inviting it to bypass Ukraine’s revenue-earning, gas pipeline with Nordstream 2.
But Biden’s unilateral step away from the responsibility it took twenty years ago in Afghanistan proves that it too cannot be relied upon.
Of NATO’s 30 member countries 21 are also EU members. Of the latter, most fail to meet their promise to NATO to spend 2% of GDP on defence; Greece and some of the Eastern European countries, perhaps recognising potential threats from Turkey and Russia respectively, do sometimes meet the target but they are all small economies and of the larger ones only France comes close. The UK just about manages to spend what it agreed to. No wonder the USA is disillusioned, although that is no excuse for withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan without agreeing a plan with its NATO allies, who joined the endeavour to root out the terrorists who had attacked America in September 2011, as was required by the alliance’s “All for one” principle.
Can we rely on America and NATO any longer or should we build a local alliance with our near neighbours? In response to the Ukraine crisis a NATO task force was set up in readiness to respond to Russia’s aggression if necessary but at a training exercise in 2015 the German army was so short of equipment that many soldiers and vehicles carried broomsticks (painted black) instead of guns – Ursula von der Leyen, now EU Commission President, was then Germany’s defence minister and her reputation in her home country is not high. The UK and France (the only EU member state with a serious fighting force) have operated jointly in several conflicts in Africa (Suez, Libya, Mali) but France doesn’t look like a reliable ally in other spheres where the UK might need support.
If any progress is made by Europe in facing up to Russia, China or Islamist terror it is unlikely that the EU will be at the forefront, NATO is still likely to be a better forum for agreeing any policy or action, with or without US participation. Germany’s agreement to continue with Nordstream2 and the EU trade agreement with China show that our ‘allies’ will do only what suits themselves. Besides which, if all 27 countries have to agree before any military action is taken they will never pick up a rifle (or broomstick).
Australia, New Zealand and Canada are traditional allies and perhaps Japan too might be interested in a formal arrangement. All these countries have been quick to respond to post-Brexit trade negotiations, so ‘Global Britain’ isn’t an entirely vain concept, as Theresa May implied in her contribution to Parliament’s debate on Afghanistan.