European Council President Charles Michel, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen and US President Joe Biden meet within EU -USA Summit in Brussels, Belgium on June 15, 2021.
Dursun Aydemir | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
LONDON — The European Union needs to bolster its defense and security policies as the United States steps back from the region, according to the former vice chancellor of Germany.
The EU has been on a soul-searching exercise since the withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops from Afghanistan in August. Shortly thereafter, Australia cancelled a submarine deal with France in September and announced a partnership with the United States instead. French and EU officials described this agreement as a “stab in the back.”
Tensions between Europe and the U.S. have prompted calls within the EU for a stronger defense policy, one that is less reliant on the United States.
“Europe has to learn to think strategically,” Sigmar Gabriel, a former German vice chancellor and foreign affairs minister, told CNBC on Thursday. “We didn’t need to do that in the past as this job had been done by the Brits, a bit by the French but especially by the Americans. That is what we now need to learn to do by ourselves.”
The EU is a group of 27 nations, where powers are distributed at the national and the wider EU level. When it comes to security and defense — just like for health and fiscal policy — decisions are still taken by national governments.
In addition, the EU has thus far not felt the need to have strong coordination in this field given that most of its members are represented at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a security alliance.
“The Europeans anyway have to learn that Joe Biden’s slogan ‘America is back’ does not mean that the old America is back, which has represented international European interest for more than 70 years,” Gabriel said.
Biden’s administration has been particularly focused on China when to comes to foreign policy. Statements at the G-7 and NATO level have demonstrated that.
“The U.S. wants a leading role in the defense of democracies against the advent of authoritarian regimes, but it will be much more concentrated on the Indo-Pacific region and the transatlantic alliance will have many things to care about — but the smallest of [them] all is the Atlantic,” he added.
This geopolitical re-positioning of the United States, however, opens opportunities for the European Union to strengthen its role elsewhere.
“Europe has to think about how the vacuum will be filled [now] that the U.S. is leaving behind in the southern Mediterranean Sea, in north Africa and in the Middle East. At the moment the vacuum is only entered by authoritarian countries, Turkey, Russia, Iran and [United] Arab Emirates — even China, all want to spread their influence in the region. The only ones who don’t have a lot to say there are the Europeans,” Gabriel said.
He thinks the EU does not need to become militarily active but needs “a common security and defense policy.”