Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


If the images of desperate Afghans flocking to Kabul airport were not harrowing enough, the deadly attack on the gathered crowds certainly should have been.

It was a severe blow to the West. Furthermore, the timing and nature of the withdrawal were set in Washington without involving the Europeans.

The events in Afghanistan are not an invitation to withdraw from further international challenges. On the contrary, they should embolden Europe to deepen its alliances and strengthen its commitment and ability to defend its interests.

A more strategically autonomous and militarily capable EU would address the future challenges and would also be profitable for the US and NATO.


Before the last evacuation flights left Kabul,  Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said the withdrawal should  spur the EU to “invest more in its security capabilities and develop the ability to think and act in strategic terms.”

But, while Biden’s unilateral decision-making on Afghanistan could call for a more comprehensive strategic decoupling from the US, it does not absolve the EU of responsibility for the shambolic withdrawal.

European forces could not even keep Kabul’s airport open without US support. There is no longer any illusion: the EU lacks the capacity to project an independent strategic vision. Weak political will  is the main reason.

Just remember Libya, now 10 years ago, where EU members France and the UK took the lead in an intervention against  Muammar Gaddafi. Though European planes did most of the air strikes it immediately became clear they lacked the capabilities to coordinate and continue the whole operation, and so dragged a reluctant US into a leading role.

The American assessment afterwards was crushing. In the words of Secretary of State Robert Gates, there was a "real possibility for a dim, if not dismal, future for the Transatlantic Alliance." Europe was warned.

Current situation

Just a few weeks ago Afghanistan was a 'wake-up call' for Europe. And before that there was Belarus, and Ukraine, and Syria…. Tensions are rising all around the globe, so internal divisions will only continue to make Europe weaker, ignored by partners and mistreated by enemies.

Europe's refusal to get serious about defence is geopolitically untenable and politically indefensible. The withdrawal has also created a major challenge for Europe. Afghanistan brings the risk of renewed terrorist attacks, a growth in drug trafficking and irregular migration.

China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, India and Turkey cannot be the only interlocutors with Afghanistan. Europe, along with the the US, has to reframe its engagement. Meanwhile  the US is focused on China having decided to pull its resources out of the Middle East and increasingly out of Europe and the Atlantic.

For now, the AUKUS (security pact between Australia, the UK and US)   incident is both an invitation and a threat: “Take EU defence seriously, or slip further into irrelevance and away from US protection”.

Unfortunately vehement calls for reform, with France typically leading the charge, have quickly faded. Discord among EU member states, driven partly by a cultural aversion to defence spending, has been an insurmountable barrier.

EU's drawbacks

As a multilateral body with twenty-seven members that decide on foreign and security policy issues by unanimity, the EU has a heavy handicap. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden and even Macron can send troops abroad within a few hours without many internal or external constraints.

Instead the EU requires a long process that involves multiple layers of preparation and consultation, with a considerable likelihood of getting stuck along the way. In urgent crises, when every hour counts, the EU is simply not a credible actor.

If the EU aspires to play an active role in world affairs, Member States should be more prone to compromise to better harmonize their voices and actions.

The EU can become a credible player only with stronger leadership, both from the institutions in Brussels and - probably more importantly - from the leaders of the big EU Member States.

A possible way out?

To proactively shape this future, European decision-makers have strategic choices to make. The role Europe wants to play in a world shaped by Sino-American competition and strategic rivalry is the most important choice its leaders will have to make in this setting.

This choice will depend  on what role Europeans want to play in this world, at what cost, and with what tools.

One way to achieve this is to make EU foreign policy more flexible by mandating individual states, or groups of them, to take selected foreign policy issues forward on behalf of the Union.

How to begin with?

First Europe needs to have a shared sense of the current threats and how to address them: a common strategic culture. An “initial entry force”, of at least 3,000 troops, could represent the first step. Europeans must work together more on defense envisaging forces more capable, more deployable and interoperable.

In this regard Europe has already  the EU Battlegroups: battalion-size forces, composed of units from various member states, adhering to the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy. Despite reaching “full operational capability” in 2007, they were never deployed, owing to internal disagreements.

Europe has also the Eurocorps, an embryonic operational force of EU soldiers in a NATO, UN and OSCE context. It is still limited to five Western European countries plus some associates, but could well form the basis for EU boots on the ground when and where most needed.

Europe needs to expand Eurocorps to all EU members, and integrate it into EU political framework. Finally, progress towards an EU army is the only way to reignite NATO as a genuine partnership and reform it into an international peace and security organisation.


When Ursula von der Leyen took over the European Commission’s in December 2019, she declared her intention to create a “geopolitical Commission”.

For the European Union, geopolitical soul-searching is something of a chronic condition. It generally leads to bold declarations and hopeful visions of strategic autonomy but that has gained newfound relevance in recent years.

What Afghanistan should teach us is that the debate around a European army has to rise above the clichés and myths: armies don't just wage wars, but protect European citizens and allies, interests and ideals abroad.

An EU army is not some ultra-federalist fantasy but a common-sense answer to the real-world challenges for European countries. Not a leap into the unknown but a number of concrete steps  needed to take to defend Europe's sovereignty and freedom.


Europe cannot establish itself as a foreign-policy heavyweight and with geopolitical influence to match its economic power, unless it adjusts its budgetary priorities.

The EU needs to do more to counter threats  and Europeans need to do it specifically with Europe's interests in mind. Then, Europe needs to improve the link between operational level and political, diplomatic actions.

Europeans must adjust their mental maps to deal with the world as it is, not as they hoped it would be. To avoid being the losers in today’s US-China competition, Europeans must relearn the language of power and conceive of EU as a geostrategic actor.

In politics, you have to know what you want, when you want it, you must have the courage to say it, and when you say it, you need the courage to carry it out.

Bilateral relations with the US, China, Russia, or neighboring states have therefore to be defined. Only when European public and decision-makers alike know which role Europe is to play in a world that will be irreversibly antagonistic can objectives, procedures, tools and mechanisms be established and evaluated.

For the time being the European Union (EU) is struggling to address numerous crisis, partly because powers remain largely within the remit of EU Member States.

This is why the EU needs to be more courageous in its foreign policy-making and move to qualified majority voting so as to act on more issues without the increasingly onerous process of securing unanimity among the EU27.