As European Union member states are caught between NATO and an internal European defence union, more states might be turning towards bilateral arrangements that undermine the core principles of the EU.

Since the beginning of the Trump administration, the nature of NATO as a reliable security alliance has become hotly debated. It is widely accepted by many that the doctrine of “America First” propagated by Trump is driving foreign policy.

Trump consistently criticises European Member states of NATO and insists that they do not share the same burden of financing the organisation and this situation is impossible to justify to US citizens. He has boldly stated that if these members do not increase their defence spending and contribution to the alliance, his administration will not shy away from reducing its military support to the region.

Particularly, in the letter he wrote to Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel last year, he blamed Germany for the failure of other NATO countries to spend enough for the unity and security of the pact: “Continued German underspending on defence undermines the security of the alliance and provides validation for other allies that also do not plan to meet their military spending commitments, because others see you as a role model.”

Merkel hit back and said that “Germany contributes a lot" and pointed out that Germany is the second largest provider of troops in NATO operations and has been engaged in Afghanistan "for many years." The US contributes more funds to NATO than Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and Canada combined.

All of this is happening against the backdrop of the US administration's withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which shocked many in Europe as it was the treaty which eliminated an entire generation of mostly European-based nuclear missiles.

Effectively, the reciprocal termination of the INF treaty raised alarm bells in Europe. Many of them are stressing that abandoning an arms control pact of this scale risks the security of EU capitals. Adding to their concerns, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated at a televised meeting with his foreign and defence ministers that, “We will come up with a tit-for-tat response,” to the unilateral decision taken by the Americans.

Putin has commanded a new set of tasks for the Russian defence ministry to develop new missiles and modify existing systems.

In the light of increasing scepticism of the Trump administration's motives, the preparations by European members of NATO over the past few years indicates that they are already in a search for an alternative multilateral security arrangement.

As one of the pillars of the EU’s Global Security Strategy, EU foreign and defence ministers agreed on establishing a new command centre for joint military training and advisory missions in 2017. The ministers presume this initiative will help EU countries articulate a coordinated and effective response to crises related to global and regional security.

Subsequently, the EU External Action Service (EEAS) prepared the European Defence Action Plan which ensures a coordinated review of annual defence budgets among its members with the objective that member states plan and invest on crucial military capabilities together. For instance, the action plan proposes a financial mechanism and interlinked procurement strategy for member states that intend to build joint military capacity.

In another step towards the creation of the EU Defence Union, the European Council established the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) to implement and operate a framework for structural integration of its member states within the Common Security and Defence Policy.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker hailed the move saying, “she is awake, the Sleeping Beauty of the Lisbon Treaty: Permanent Structured Cooperation is happening. I welcome the operational steps taken today by Member States to lay the foundations of a European Defence Union. Our security cannot be outsourced.”

There are currently 17 collaborative PESCO projects which participating member states have agreed to initiate. These projects cover three significant areas: a pan-European Military Training Centre, capacity development in all security related areas and operational readiness in the field of defence.

Despite growing efforts for closer security cooperation in Europe, however, there remains a challenge that obscures the idea of a European security apparatus which will be an alternative to the US-led NATO.

As the Brexit process and the rise of populist governments demonstrates, the union is not as united as it presents itself to the world. The recent bilateral agreement signed in the German city of Aachen between the most influential states of the union, France and Germany, was another sign of the divided relations in the Union.

The exclusive commitments reached between France and Germany with this treaty like the deepening economic integration with a Franco-German ‘economic zone' and a mutual defense clause 'to assist each other by all means at their disposal'  did not go down well with other member states.

These members fear that bilateral agreements such as the Aachen Treaty could exclude them from the decision-making process as Berlin and Paris become ever more dominant inside the bloc after Brexit.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte reacted to the move,‘’They are only thinking of their national interests. Certainly, our allies cannot believe that we will sit silently at the table to underwrite decisions taken by others.”

The European Council President Donald Tusk reflected these concerns saying that they need a "clear signal" from Paris and Berlin that enhanced bilateral cooperation is not an "alternative" to overall European cooperation.

In the context of security and defence, it appears that European countries cannot rely solely on NATO assurances or those of the European Union as a whole.

This is leading states to seek bilateral arrangements which undermines the fundamental principles of the EU and NATO. As the influence of populist parties steadily increases in the decision-making mechanisms of European countries it impedes the prospective of a fully integrated Europe.

The shift towards populist politics should not be regarded as the hurdle behind the tensions fuming in global politics, but it should be taken as a chance of communicating and rebuilding relations.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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