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Balance is never achieved in politics, and the European Union is the paramount example of that. Brussels is still exhausted by last month’s negotiations over the Multiannual Financial Framework. The Frugal Four (Austria, Denmark, Netherlands and Sweden) the Union’s ambitious objectives will need larger contributions now the UK is out; others claim they already pay too much and will not pay more.

In the polite, friendly manner that dominates politics within the Council halls, national representatives point out how the economic models of some of their colleagues could be more productive. Friends of Cohesion, on the other hand (Spain, Portugal, Poland, et. al.), stress the fact that everyone gets far more from the EU, in the form of market access or diplomatic force, than what they actually pay – especially those who complain to pay too much. Balance is far from being even approached here, with negotiations expected to extend in a show of political force and electoral interests. However, things are moving differently in the other field of European integration that was at the centre of a major rendezvous also last month, and that is also experiencing important shifts after Brexit: defence.

The EU attended the Munich Security Conference (MSC) with a keen interest on Westlessness [1], the theme of this year, as it addresses the global trend for decreasing the leadership of the West. Transatlantic divisions and increasing illiberalism in some Western countries adds to growing influence and assertiveness from Russia and China, while the weakening of multilateral institutions continues. Internal division and international irrelevance among unilateralist powers could pose a strategic threat to the EU. High Representative Josep Borrell acknowledged this fact, stating that the EU must ‘develop an appetite for power’[2]. The peculiarity resides in the fact that, theoretically, the EU is powerful enough to avoid that scenario – and now, conditions to do so have changed notably.

With the UK outside the Union, France is now the only Member State with a nuclear arsenal and a permanent seat at the Security Council of the United Nations (UNSC). France is the military powerhouse of the EU, the same way Germany is the economic one. However, strong leadership of one Member State in a specific sector is usually contentious among EU members.. German resistance to demands for further economic integration[3] is widely known, although the same dynamic works the other way around when defence is on the table. France is sceptic about sharing its military leadership with EU partners like Germany, especially when it comes to core issues.

Germany has called for France to give up its UNSC permanent seat to the EU several times, the last of them being just a little over a year ago[4], when German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz proposed to ‘Europeanise’ the French seat, with France becoming ‘the permanent EU ambassador to the UN’. The French response was of course non, not only based on the straightforward consideration that it would not serve the immediate national interest, but also because it would put into question the container and the content. What would the legal framework for an EU seat at the Security Council be? And more importantly, is the EU ready to speak with one voice in the most important security forum in the world?

French scepticism to this proposal is evident, featuring a visible similarity with German positions over risk sharing in economic integration. However, at least from a dialectic perspective, it appears that advances are more likely to occur in the defence domain, as debates are touching upon new dossiers.

France is now giving a ‘European dimension’ to its nuclear arsenal, as President Macron expressly stated at the École de Guerre,[5] proposing a ‘strategic dialogue, with interested European partners, on the role of French nuclear deterrence in our collective security’. Although it was just a declaration, if we add the aforementioned proposal to the list of projects that have already gained traction since the Brexit referendum, we can see how integration advances at a slightly faster pace. PESCO, – which comprises all Member States including neutrals, except for Malta (neutral), and Denmark (opt-out from Common Security and Defence Policy) – started in 2017 and added 13 new projects in 2019[6]. Projects for European drones (MALE), tanks (MGCS), and fighter jets (FCAS) are also well under way. Even a European network for intelligence cooperation[7] was created last month by 23 EU countries, after it was proposed by President Macron three years ago as another instrument to strengthen EU sovereignty.

Nonetheless, this ‘Europeanisation of defence’ is still far from fixed, given its contentious nature when compared to a more Atlantic perspective of collective defence. This position is especially linked to Eastern EU countries, which tend to prioritise NATO and bilateral agreements with the US when it comes to defence – despite the recent questionings of the Alliance and the awkward positions that Turkey or even the US now hold within NATO. Although this is yet another East/West cleavage, it adds up to German scepticism towards French military leadership, as Berlin gives much more importance to the views of its Eastern neighbours than Paris, Rome or Madrid.

Declarations cannot be confused with on-the-ground projects, and positions are still far from each other within the Union. But it is true that something is moving in EU defence integration, especially since Brexit. President von der Leyen wants her Commission to be a geopolitical one, and dialogue between capitals is increasingly touching upon new dossiers, with possibilities translating into actual projects. With the UK now outside, breakthroughs will depend, almost exclusively, on the trade-offs between the French and German visions on the European Union.