Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 11 March 2024



US absence makes Europe’s divisions starker

The Times

As the US security umbrella flaps, the discipline that American leadership once exerted is weakening too. Europe’s divisions are becoming deeper and more dangerous. It is not just the Republicans in Congress. Biden’s worries about provoking Russia have meant persistent dithering over the supply of weapons to Ukraine since the start of the war, and are a continuing drag on other countries’ efforts. The resulting bottlenecks raise the prospect of Ukrainian military collapse there this summer. That is polarising European opinion, leaving British assumptions about European security dangerously out of date.

After years of alienating the frontline states with his unpredictable grandstanding, President Macron has been reborn as the most hawkish west European leader, floating the idea of deploying Nato troops to Ukraine, underlining the necessity of Russia’s defeat, and launching new efforts to help beleaguered Moldova. He gave a fiery joint press conference last week with another stalwart, his Czech counterpart, the retired Nato bigwig Petr Pavel, and has been whizzing round eastern capitals offering support.

His hosts still mistrust him and France. The hard-right, Kremlin-linked Marine Le Pen has an alarmingly good chance of being the next president. But for now, the easterners welcome Macron’s taboo-busting talk, and the way he is cranking up the pressure on Germany: Europe’s biggest country and its weakest link.

Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, is hostage to a peacenik faction in his collapsing SPD. He is blocking the transfer of vital long-range Taurus missiles to Ukraine, on nitpicking legalistic grounds dressed up as high principle. Germany stands for “Diplomaten statt Granaten,” (Diplomats not grenades) he chirps, on what he takes as the moral high ground. It looks more like a swamp.

Other leaders do not even bother to dress up their views in high-minded language. The new Slovak prime minister, Robert Fico, loathes Ukraine and cosies up to Russia. So does Hungary’s thuggish Viktor Orban. Austria continues a shameless policy of enabling Russian espionage and sanctions busting. Pope Francis, oblivious to Ukrainians’ torment under Russian occupation, calls for a “white flag”. Whether from naivety, posturing or cynicism, the immediate price is paid by Ukrainians in their tens of thousands: dead, maimed, orphaned and widowed. If victory vindicates Putin’s war, the wider consequences will be catastrophic too.


For the Baltic states, Poland and Finland, the threat from Russia is already existential. The Baltic states Tare building bunkers on their borders. Finland has 300,000 trained reservists ready within days, and can fight for a month, alone. No other European country can do that.

The hubris around Nato’s 75th anniversary summit in Washington this summer gives nemesis a tempting target. The alliance’s new defence plans, drawn up after last year’s Vilnius summit, assume 50 battle-ready brigades. It has, at best, 25. Without the US stockpiles and reinforcements, it’s worse. True, European allies could blitz Russia with high-tech weapons in the first week of a war — but would then run out of rockets and missiles. After that, it’s nuclear war or surrender.

As the continent’s divisions deepen, the dilemma grows for Britain. How far can and should we try to fill the gap left by the US? Do we complement France’s efforts or compete with them? The most likely framework for Britain’s efforts is the Joint Expeditionary Force, which includes the Baltic and Nordic states and the Netherlands. On top of existing military and political ties, the next stage would be to coordinate defence procurement and production: a big ammunition plant in Latvia, say, backed by contracts from all JEF members. Britain could expect more orders for high-tech missiles. Pooling efforts makes a big difference. Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden have in effect combined their air forces. The resulting joint force has more (and more modern) warplanes than the RAF.

But European assumptions about Britain are out of date, too. We lied to Nato about our ability to field a war-fighting army division. We can’t. Despite a £55 billion defence budget, between our bloated special forces and our creaky nuclear deterrent lies a wasteland of scanty, overpriced, ill-maintained and outdated kit, of overstretched, disillusioned personnel and risk-averse bureaucrats. The Public Accounts Committee highlights a £29 billion gap between plans and reality over the next ten years, the result of decades of dodged decisions. Three former defence secretaries and two ministers have highlighted the flimsiness of government promises to spend more. Mothballing one of our aircraft carriers will be only the first of many painful steps on the road to reality.

We have also barely started on building resilience to the most likely forms of attack: on our infrastructure, computers and mindset. Imagine that a nasty spat in eastern Europe coincides with cyber-attacks that disable the railways, freeze NHS computers and crash our media outlets, all coupled with a blizzard of disinformation. Would our leaders go to war to defend our allies? Would the public back them? Or would we decide to sit this one out?

Even if we wanted to fight, we would have to get there. A big worry now in the frontline states is that in a crisis, Germany may cave to threats from Russia and block the eastwards movement of reinforcements (something that in effect happened briefly at the start of the Ukraine war). Time was when the Americans would have fixed that. Not any more.

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