European Security at Munich Conference: A Cacophony of Opinions and Increased Militarism

A zoomed-in and rotated exterior view of the 'Bayerischer Hof' hotel, the venue of the 54rd Munich Security Conference (MSC), in Munich, Germany, 15 February 2018. (Photo: RONALD WITTEK/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

The 54th edition of the Munich Security Conference (MSC), a premier event in global geopolitics, finished on Sunday, with no visible progress made on any of the numerous fronts. Even long-time MSC chief Wolfgang Ischinger ended the series of debates on a very pessimistic note, uncharacteristic of the seasoned German diplomat.

For decades, the European Union was synonymous with pacifist policies, concentrating on the welfare state and mediating in global diplomatic disputes. This year’s MSC showed a different face of European leaders, who seem more eager than before to enter the arena of security issues, with plans for increased spending in the defense sector. The NATO guidelines of 2% of the yearly budget appropriated for these purposes is still unrealistic, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel claims, but he also demanded a more proactive approach from Brussels and all EU members.

“Europe also needs a united power projection in the world. It must never concentrate solely on a single military approach, but it also must not completely relinquish it. Because as the only vegetarian, we will have a very hard time in a world of carnivores,” Gabriel said.

EU Defense Projects

The German FM was probably talking about moves like the PESCO25 (Permanent Structure Cooperation) agreement that was signed by 25 EU member states in November of last year. This is considered a step towards a more uniform security policy by the members of the bloc, and an acknowledgment that enhanced coordination, increased investment in defense and cooperation in developing defense capabilities are key requirements for achieving it, as the Office of the High Representative Federica Mogherini stated when announcing the deal.

A few months before that, in July of last year, the Brussels administration unveiled a new European Defense Fund (EDF), with a planned budget of over 5.5 billion euros per year for projects centered on improving defense capabilities. This decision also reverses the trend of cuts on defense spending in most EU countries, which has lasted more than a decade.

The move is also seen as an answer to U.S. President Donald Trump’s statements about the need for increased investments in the defense sector from other members of NATO, as he has asked on numerous occasions, most prominently during the 2017 NATO Summit in Brussels. This political stance and uncertainty over how the current U.S. administration will react to common North Atlantic security policies fueled the idea of a tighter military cooperation inside the EU, but it is also nothing new.

A police sniffer dog for explosive materials checks the perimeter around the ‘Bayerischer Hof’ hotel, the venue of the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC), in Munich, Germany, 16 February 2018. (Photo: RONALD WITTEK/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, a big proponent of a tighter cooperation and integration within the EU for decades, has been talking about the need for a joint military since the beginning of his term, at least since 2015. That year also marked the first time that a member state called for a joint defense effort according to Article 42 of the Lisbon Treaty.

France did it after the terrorist attacks on Paris, and answering these threats is also one of the arguments that European institutions are using to promote a new phase in security cooperation between member states. These events show the potential of the EU to be more militaristic, but NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that making a parallel security apparatus with countries that are already a part of the North Atlantic Alliance would create confusion.

“They will really be the losers if they end up with two competing structures, with two competing capability targets and lists,” Stoltenberg claimed.

“More Steel Tanks, and Not only Think Tanks”

However, the unity that Brussels is trying to achieve seemed far out of reach during the panels in the Bayerische Hof Hotel, with disagreements prompting Juncker to suggest the possibility of making security decisions within the EU with a qualified majority, instead of unanimously, as is currently the rule. One by one, the leaders of member states highlighted their own security risks and challenges, often appearing as if they are living in different realities.

Brexit still looms over any conversation about the future of Europe. British Prime Minister Theresa May called for the signing of a new security treaty between London and Brussels, but Juncker said that he would not like trade and security policies to be thrown into the same pot.

Federal Chancellor of the Republic of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, speaks during the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC), in Munich, Germany, 17 February 2018. (Photo: RONALD WITTEK/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Sebastian Kurz, the Chancellor of Austria (which is not a NATO member) called for a “return to the Judeo-Christian roots of the EU,” also claiming that without secure outside borders, the internal borders between members states will be endangered. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was even more concentrated on a bigger military presence.

“We need more steel tanks, and not only think tanks, because we are good in think tanks in Europe, but maybe we have too little of those traditional forces, which are very important vis-a-vis some hybrid-type warfare like ISIS, or traditional and hybrid, like Russia,” Morawiecki said.

Russia and Turkey Against the West

Russia was the obvious outlier during the event, at least in the eyes of the Western powers. The so-called Normandy format negotiations about the situation in Eastern Ukraine (leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine) weren’t held because of scheduling issues, per official sources.

Russian and Ukranian FMs Sergey Lavrov and Pavlo Klimkin did manage to meet, but the talks resulted in no progress. Lavrov openly blamed Kiev for sabotaging the process. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko opposed any attempt to curtail the sanctions against Moscow and called for the quickest way possible for his country to join NATO and the EU.

Just as the event in Munich started, from the other side of the Atlantic came the news that 13 people and three companies from Russia were indicted for allegedly interfering in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and the organization of device campaigns. Lavrov answered that, without facts, the allegations were “a claptrap.” U.S. Security Advisor HR McMaster said that his country is working on improving its cybersecurity and made a joking response to the Moscow delegation’s question about a possible cooperation with their experts.

A handout photo made available by the Munich Security Conference (MSC) on 18 February 2018 shows the Prime Minister of the State of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, showing a piece of an allegedly Iranian drone shot down over Israel, as he addresses the participants of the MSC, in Munich, Germany, 18 February 2018. (Photo: PREISS/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

“I am surprised there are any Russian cyber experts available, based on how active most of them have been in undermining our democracies in the West,” McMaster said. The Russian delegation responded by asking for evidence of these claims.

The final day of the conference was also marked by incidents and public feuds. A member of the German Parliament from the Green Party Cem Ozdemir, a vocal critic of Turkish President Recep Tayipp Erdogan, was staying at the same hotel as the delegation from Ankara. One of the Turkish delegation’s bodyguards supposedly complained about the arrangement, commenting that “they are staying in the same hotel with a terrorist.” The Bundestag member was given additional security, with three police officers following him at all times.

There was also a fiery exchange between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Iranian delegation. Netanyahu brought a piece of metal to the stage, claiming it came from an Iranian drone downed in Israeli airspace. He called Tehran “the biggest threat in the modern world.” Iranian FM Mohammad Zarif described Netanyahu’s speech as a “cartoonish circus.”

“Peace through dialogue” is the motto of the MSC, but this year it was hard to see how any of these words described the gossip and political wrangling during and around the conference. Ischinger reminded those who were following the events in Munich that there was a lot of activity on camera and on the sidelines of the event. “This is only the tip of an iceberg,” he claimed. However, the harbinger of conflict resonated in his closing speech. He alluded to a world not yet safely back from the brink. For all his optimism, it appears global leaders chartering these dangerous waters may be less savvy navigators and more akin to the doomed crew of the Titantic.

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