Defying US, Paris and Berlin stand firm on EU defence pact

by Michelle Fitzpatrick and Joseph Schmid

Munich (Germany) (AFP) - Europe must be able to stand on its own feet militarily, France and Germany said Friday as they made the case for a new EU defence pact that has rattled Washington.

In opening remarks at the Munich Security Conference, French Defence Minister Florence Parly and her German counterpart Ursula von der Leyen said the EU plan posed no threat to NATO.

But they stressed that the European Union needed the "autonomy" to respond to security threats, even while bolstering their commitments to the NATO alliance.

"When we are threatened in our own neighbourhood, particularly to the south, we have to be able to respond, even when the United States or the (NATO) alliance would like to be less implicated," Parly said.

Von der Leyen also took a swipe at Washington for cutting its aid and diplomacy budgets, reminding "our American friends" that they have "precious commitments beyond military means".

The EU announced in December a permanent structured cooperation on defence agreement, known as PESCO, aimed at developing new military equipment and improving cooperation and decision-making.

Senior US officials voiced doubts about the EU plan this week, fearing it could draw resources away from NATO or become a "protectionist" umbrella for European defence manufacturers.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has cautiously welcomed the EU's efforts to step up its defence initiatives, but warned that these must not undermine the transatlantic alliance or duplicate its work.

Batting away those concerns, Parly said "those who try to say it's either the EU or NATO: it's a false debate".

But EU nations must be ready to act "without asking the United States to come to our aid, without asking them to divert their ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capabilities or their supply craft from other missions," she added.

Von der Leyen agreed that building up Europe's military autonomy was compatible with shoring up the NATO alliance.

"It is about a Europe that can also add more weight militarily so that it can be more autonomous and carry more responsibility -- also within NATO," she said.

- 'Wake-up call' -

The European Union launched PESCO with much fanfare in December, spurred into action by Brexit, the migrant crisis, a more assertive Russia and an unpredictable White House.

"This was the wake-up call we needed to understand that we had to change something and stand on our own two feet," von der Leyen said.

The pact, signed by 25 EU members, aims to get member states to cooperate more closely in spending on defence and developing new military equipment.

At a gathering of EU foreign ministers in Sofia, the bloc's foreign policy chief was also at pains to allay concerns about PESCO.

Federica Mogherini said talks with NATO defence ministers including US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis on Wednesday had allowed her to give reassurances that the EU plan did not seek to replace the alliance.

But she dismissed a call by Mattis for written assurances that common defence was solely a job for NATO, saying this was already "clearly stated in black and white in the EU treaties".

- Soft power -

Stoltenberg, also at the Munich gathering, reiterated that the EU's defence pact should "not compete (with) but complement the efforts of NATO".

He noted that once Britain leaves the EU, 80 percent of NATO's defence expenditure will come from states outside the bloc, underscoring the importance of non-EU allies in the battle against security threats.

"The EU cannot protect Europe by itself," he said.

European members of NATO have in recent months promised to step up their defence spending following complaints from US President Donald Trump they were not pulling their weight in the military alliance.

France in particular has announced plans to bolster its expenditure, earmarking nearly 300 billion euros ($370 billion) of investments by 2025.

That would take France's defence budget to the NATO goal of two percent of GDP -- a target that few alliance members currently meet -- compared with about 1.8 percent today.

Germany has also vowed to spend more on defence but remains well off the two percent target, much to the irritation of the Trump administration.

In her speech in the southern city of Munich, Von der Leyen rebuffed the US criticism by highlighting the need for aid work and other so-called "soft power" as well as military might.

"We watch with concern as some partners are ever more reducing their funding for diplomacy and development cooperation or for the United Nations," she said.

In its 2019 budget, the Trump administration has proposed lifting defence spending by 10 percent to $686 billion, while slashing the State Department's budget.