When NATO Commander General Philip Breedlove revealed last month that the United States would be cutting its military spending in Europe by up to 20 percent next year, Europe did not react with the same concern it might have shown even a few years ago. That may be because a more strategic Europe is emerging after a prolonged period of soul-searching. Two countries in particular appear to be leading the way : France and Poland.
At the recent NATO Steadfast Jazz military exercise in Poland and Latvia, France contributed the second largest contingent after Poland, representing a welcome commitment to security beyond its traditional involvement in Africa. This strong French presence came in contrast to the small contingents sent by the United States and Germany — despite the importance of this exercise destined to certify NATO’s Response Forces — and highlights the institutional dynamics that currently structure transatlantic defense cooperation. Meanwhile, Poland is carving out a strong position in its neighborhood : the country leads the Visegrad Group of Central European nations, into which it also intends to incorporate Bulgaria and Romania ; it has participated in NATO Air Policing operations in the Baltic and maritime cooperation with Scandinavian states ; and it remains committed to the agenda of the Eastern Partnership. This position will be strengthened with its armed forces slated to modernize over the next ten years, a process that will eventually reinforce Poland’s role as a privileged operational partner for regional and out-of-area endeavors.
The security relationship between Paris and Warsaw has become increasingly close. France and Poland have shared expectations for the outcomes of this month’s European Summit on Defense and next year’s NATO Summit. Both have shown a keen interest in the drafting of a new European Security Strategy while also closely following developments related to the NATO Framework Nation concept proposed by Germany. Poland’s decision to supply the French-led military intervention in Mali with over 170 tons of equipment also confirms its willingness to engage in overseas missions in collaboration with France and serves as a symbol of Poland pulling its weight to support operations that have no direct bearing on its national security.
There are, however, some minor hurdles to overcome. Poland had expressed its dissatisfaction with negotiations over the proposed European Defense Technological and Industrial Base (EDTIB) strategy that will be one of the main topics of discussion at the European Summit, fearing that its defense industry would be excluded. The final agreement required concessions by others, including France, which indicated how Poland’s central role was being acknowledged by its European partners. At the same time, Poland hopes that France can be more active on Eastern Partnership issues that are high on Warsaw’s agenda. A stronger French commitment to such issues would send a different message to the concerned countries, and would also make France’s positioning as a leader of European foreign policy and defense issues more legitimate.
While France and Poland appear to see eye-to-eye on certain issues, there is a danger of the relationship becoming purely transactional. Instead, it should be used as a stepping stone to encourage other European partners to participate more strongly in building Europe’s vision and capabilities. Germany, literally in between France and Poland, has put security policy on the backburner in the aftermath of its elections. Reviving the Weimar Triangle summit discussions between the three countries could help bring Germany fully on board, meaning that Europe could begin to take its defense and strategic autonomy seriously. In this context, last week’s meeting between French President François Hollande and his Polish counterpart Bronisław Komorowski, at which security issues topped the agenda, serves as a reminder that Weimar Triangle cooperation could be taken to the next level, and finally serve as the backbone of a more united European defense.
Even in the absence of deliverables, Europe’s changing attitudes suggest a great desire to strengthen common defense within the Union, symbolized by the European Council meeting later this month. Countries like France and Poland, who are heavily involved in the process of defense integration, have the ability to drive the discussion forward, whether at a bilateral or a multilateral level b. But French-Polish cooperation may not be enough. European defense will not truly work without the strong involvement of other partner nations, and securing the commitment of EU member states to this effort will remain a momentous task, but one that is central to the preservation of European strategic autonomy.