With Britain leaving the EU, concerns about U.S. President Donald Trump’s commitment to Europe, and an increasingly aggressive Russia, Europeans – especially the French and Germans – are bolstering their own defenses. The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder talked with Jeffrey Rathke, Deputy Director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), about Franco-German defense cooperation and what’s in it for each country.
The Cipher Brief: Have you seen a change in Franco-German defense relations over the past year?
Jeffrey Rathke: The Franco-German defense relationship has always been important for both countries, but for different reasons. For Germany, the Franco-German relationship has always been at the heart of its European policy. While that has focused principally on issues related to the European Union, there has also been a defense component. There is the Franco-German Brigade, for example, which is part of the Eurocorps.
For France, they’ve been seeking, like the United States, Germany’s participation in military operations outside Europe to deal with potential security threats at their source. The most recent example is in Mali, which right now is Germany’s largest overseas military deployment. It came about because of the close Franco-German partnership. France is interested in having Germany more involved in stability and security missions outside of the European space because France is stretched thin; it can’t do everything on its own, and it wants to encourage a broader approach to security in Germany.
TCB: Is Britain leaving the EU going to make this partnership more important?
Rathke: It will in some ways. There are two obvious things to look at in the near term. First of all, on July 13, the same day Donald Trump arrived in France for the Bastille Day celebration, there was a joint Franco-German cabinet meeting, which is something they do regularly – at least on an annual basis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron co-chaired this meeting, and one of the outcomes from that cabinet meeting was an agreement to cooperate on developing a fifth generation fighter aircraft.
The French and Germans have said that project is open to other countries’ participation and even non-EU countries’ participation. But as a practical matter, we’re likely to see this project develop as a Franco-German effort. There will perhaps be some other participation, but it will be difficult for the UK to get involved in a serious and significant way in that production project.
TCB: To clarify, you used the word “developing” – what does that mean exactly? Is this a joint procurement initiative?
Rathke: The two countries have agreed to develop a plan for jointly producing a fifth generation fighter aircraft. They have not agreed yet to produce and procure it jointly. That’s a decision that they would make later, once they’ve explored what the requirements would be, that is, what the capabilities would be of such an aircraft – what each country’s needs would be for it, the cost, and all sorts of things that would have to be examined carefully by both sides before they would decide to go ahead with it. We’re at the start of that process right now. But it’s still an important signal that the two countries decided to do this together.
What that means in the German case is that they’re probably not going to buy the U.S. F-35. Even in the context of an increasing German defense budget, it’s hard to see them buying two different advanced fighters. They certainly have a need to replace their existing fighter aircraft, but they’re probably not going to produce something of their own and at the same time buy the F-35.
But to get back to your question about Brexit and whether Franco-German cooperation is going to become more important – the other reason I think it will be important is that the proposal to examine joint production of fighter aircraft takes place in the context of increasing German defense spending. The German government has committed, as all the other NATO allies have, to increasing defense spending with the goal of reaching the two percent of GDP level. France is pretty close to that level already; they spend about 1.8 percent of GDP on defense. Germany is much lower; it’s about 1.2 percent. That means the trend in the last couple years of increasing German defense spending likely will continue, which means Germany’s going to have money to spend both on procurement of military systems, as well as on other things. From a French perspective, they want to harness that as something that benefits both countries.
The other thing to keep in mind is NATO. Germany’s top security priority is NATO. The tighter the Franco-German defense relations become, the greater opportunity Germany has to try to bind France to collective defense in Europe. France, of course, is a NATO member too, but it has always seen a global role for France that is not limited to collective defense in Europe. France has always had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with NATO, in part because it was perceived as a U.S.-led alliance where France had to accommodate the views of Washington, rather than set the agenda on its own. As concerns remain about the U.S. commitment to NATO in the future, for Germany, it’s a prudent move to strengthen its cooperation with France as a way of ensuring France remains committed to collective defense in the NATO context.
TCB: Does this desire on Germany’s part to make sure the NATO alliance remains strong also explain why Germany has been advocating for joint procurement measures in the EU, in an effort to complement NATO?
Rathke: That’s certainly one important element of it. Germany has wanted to strengthen the EU’s defense efforts. People sometimes like to throw around the sloppy term of an EU army, which is not what anybody is aiming for. But what Germany and France and a few other countries have proposed, which has now been approved by the EU leaders, is an EU defense fund that would help both on the research side and also on the development side to develop indigenous technology and defense products, with the goal of encouraging multinational European participation and thereby spreading the costs, reducing duplication, and resulting in greater defense capabilities for the money spent.
We’ve gotten over the somewhat theoretical debates of 10 or 15 years ago about whether the European Union should compete with or even potentially replace NATO as a security and defense organization. Nobody really believes that anymore. This opens up the possibility for a strengthened EU role that is complementary to the overall collective defense mission in Europe.
TCB: Do you have any final thoughts on this topic?
Rathke: A couple of things strike me. If you look at defense spending, currently Germany and France spend about the same about on defense – right around 40 billion euros per year. Germany has a larger population and a larger GDP. In order to reach the two percent spending target, for France that would mean an increase of about five billion euros per year. For Germany, that would mean an increase of about 25 billion euros per year – a large addition of resources that even Germany admits will be complicated to spend wisely.
The other part of the two percent target is a 20 percent target on procurement of major equipment and also on research and development. France exceeds that target; they spend about 24 percent of their defense spending on equipment and related items. Germany is at about 14 percent. As Germany’s overall spending increases, the proportion that’s devoted to procurement, is also probably going to increase.
The second thing to keep in mind is that France is doing a strategic review, which began at the start of Macron’s presidency. That probably will be concluded by the end of the year. It will be interesting to look at what role the Franco-German partnership plays in the context of that strategic review. Germany did its own defense review about a year ago, in which it showcased a growing ambition to play a larger role. Both countries’ strategic thinking is developing.
At the same time, there’s an election in Germany in September. It would be unwise to assume any specific coalition that’s going to take place after that. By the time the French strategic review is done, closer to the end of the year, there should be a government in place in Berlin which will have worked out its defense policy. So we’ll have to see what kind of government takes shape in Berlin, and whether that also means any change in emphasis for Germany’s role in NATO, in the EU defense context, and the Franco-German relationship.