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The war of words with Turkey, regardless of who started it, what are its merits or demerits, is a stark reminder that NATO is just a military alliance. It is largely indifferent to constitutional norms and democratic standards or, to put it differently, it neither shares nor promotes the values of the EU. For NATO that should not be of any concern. It was conceived as a defence organisation and remains exactly that. Whereas the EU—the euro area in particular—has ambitions for a political union, a European sovereign with a common constitutional order that rests on—and expands upon—the connatural values of democracy, fundamental rights, and the rule of law.
The EU is dependent on NATO for its defence. Europeans have arguably benefited from the ever-growing war machine of the United States. It has allowed them to effectively outsource their responsibilities on the matter, letting the Americans foot the bill. Yet it has also obscured a crucial fact about all such international dependencies: they impose constraints well beyond the narrowly defined confines of their area of application, in this case security policy.
NATO forces its own agenda
Because of NATO, the EU through [at least some of] its Member States is dragged into a mixture of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ power tactics and foreign policy that is not of its own making. For instance, the EU could have stayed out of Libya or at least not engage in the misguided practice of exporting ‘democracy’ by means of guns and missiles. Libya is a country on Europe’s southern border and a crucial partner when it comes to a range of policies, with migration being at the top of the list for the moment. A ‘failed state’ there does not help Europe in the least. Yet here we are.
Past examples are aplenty, while there are potential future scenarios that could be equally—if not more—unsettling. The Americans have for some time now been inflating the dangers posed by Iran. Notwithstanding the irony of a nuclear superpower led by an erratic ignoramus worrying about the nuclear capacity of another country, is this squabble really something that Europeans should be involved in? In other words, will the EU be refashioned to act as the de facto political arm of NATO by imposing economic sanctions and whatnot?
Defence guides the overall political outlook
Speculation aside, security policy is not merely about security. Politics cannot be neatly organised in separate containers that have no connection to each other. Defence is inextricably linked to a number of policies, from internal public order, to border management, and foreign affairs (with further implications on fiscal issues and the distribution of resources).
The EU’s vision of a global power is anchored in peace, diplomacy, and economic prosperity. It is not about engaging in wars far from home in pursuit of dubious ends. For such a foreign policy to be sustainable and indeed consistent, it needs to be underpinned by a capable military capacity. Otherwise, it will remain exposed to the vicissitudes of internal politics from its partners to its east and west, such as Turkey and the USA.
An EU army, or further integration towards that direction, will diminish the dependency on NATO, thus allowing for a broader scope for autonomous action. This is not about spending more, nor does it have anything to do with emulating the American model of the post Cold War era. It is about reinforcing a factor of effective sovereignty in pursuit of reducing the exposure to countries that do not share the EU values.
Military spending is not equal to militarism
For some progressives, military spending is an evil in itself. It promotes war and perpetuates conformity with a suboptimal moral standard. While there is a kernel of truth to that, a more refined analytical approach would attribute the downsides to militarism rather than defence spending per se.
It would definitely be preferable to channel those funds into education, culture, and social welfare rather than manufacture more bombs. Nonetheless, we are not presented with a binary of mutually exclusive realms of possibility. Expanding the defence capabilities is also about safeguarding the constitutional order and its cherished normative achievements. One needs to be pragmatic when confronted with Islamic fundamentalism or the advances of various authoritarian regimes. Dogmatic pacifism or even practical reasonableness does not seem to hamper them.
In the EU’s case, further integration towards a European army could indeed emphasise the distinction between defence and militarism. More efficient military spending would help the Union maintain an independent foreign policy, engaging with the rest of the world on its own terms rather than those imposed by NATO. The key is in the qualitative parameters of policy. How is the military instrumentalised in the context of internal and external affairs. Consistency with EU values would require an army that only acts as a deterrent, as the ultimate guarantor of constitutionality and peace.
NATO is the present and should become the past
That granted, NATO will remain relevant for the foreseeable future. European integration takes time. It would require at least five years of preparations for something effective to be instituted at the supranational level, with more to be needed thenceforth. Still, the longer term goal should be to reduce the dependency on NATO and consequently minimise the exposure to the politics of non-EU countries.
A European political union presupposes control over the factors of effective sovereignty.1 And a genuinely EU-driven foreign policy, one founded on the core values of democracy, fundamental rights, and the rule of law, can only be formulated independent from the agendas of countries that do not necessarily have the same normative ambitions as the EU.
In the meantime, and in no small part due to NATO, the EU will eventually have to conform with the need of maintaining close ties with Turkey. The war of words will subside. The insults be forgotten. The underlying issues disregarded. Turkey’s further drift into Erdoganite absolutism would have to somehow be ignored in the name of preserving the integrity of the alliance.
Understandably, this is a suboptimal state of affairs, one that emphasises the powerlessness of an EU that is dependent on NATO and, above all, one that highlights the emptiness of the much-vaunted EU values in the absence of a strong foundation for the effective sovereignty of the Union.