INTERVIEW: Be it Trump or Biden, Europe must protect itself, says chief of European Defence Agency

Manal Lotfy , Monday 2 Nov 2020

A Joe Biden presidency would be a welcome relief in Europe, the founder and first chief executive of the European Defence Agency in Brussels said

Nick Witney, the founder and first chief executive of the European Defence Agency in Brussels
Nick Witney, the founder and first chief executive of the European Defence Agency in Brussels

The question in Europe today is how to protect the continent’s security in a volatile international environment and in an unpredictable political scene in the US.

Only a few days remain before the crucial American elections. All eyes are on the US of course, but after the elections, all eyes will be on America’s allies in Europe and Asia. These elections are the most consequential for the two continents in a generation.

A Joe Biden presidency would be a welcome relief in Europe. And the reason is the US President Donald Trump did shake the transatlantic alliance to its core, and another four years of him could make the gap unbridgeable. The NATO alliance could be also at stake. Many European leaders are dreading the prospect of Trump pushing them publicly to increase their NATO budget contributions. Many in Europe also fear that the coming US administration, Biden or Trump, might push hard to force the Europeans to take sides in the strategic competition between China and the US.

Ahram Online presented these and other concerns to Nick Witney, the founder and first chief executive of the European Defence Agency in Brussels. In 2004 High Representative Javier Solana chose Witney to lead the team charged with developing the concept and blueprint of the agency. That was after the Iraqi war in 2003 -- troubled times.

The world is faring no better in 2020. The European Defence Agency is the security arm of the EU. Its aim is to promote and facilitate integration between member states within the EU’s common security and defence policy. From 2004 to 2007 Witney led the European Defence Agency. It is an ambitious project and the road to Europe’s “strategic sovereignty” is still long. But the developments on the international stage are pushing Europe to move forward with its defence project.

Witney believes Trump's election will worsen relations across the Atlantic, but even a Biden presidency will not solve all the problems between Europe and Washington.

AO: How is it going to be different if Trump is re-elected or if Biden wins?

NW: For Europeans, the most important issue is how the next US president will regard NATO, the US security guarantees to Europe, and the extent of US military investment in protecting Europe. 

I think the expectation in Europe is that if Trump is re-elected, things will be just as bad as they have been for the past four years, and maybe even worse. I mean, it is not entirely beyond the realm of possibilities that Trump in another four years might withdraw America from NATO and let the Europeans fend for themselves on the international stage, and that would be a terrifying idea for most Europeans. 

If Biden is elected, there is an expectation that he will be more consolatory and return to the language used by US presidents over the past 70 years, i.e. the importance of the transatlantic security partnership. But at the same time, I think most Europeans understand that things have changed. And that even under a Biden presidency, the United States will focus on the Pacific region and China, and there will be a greater expectation of Europe to do more for their own defence, and there may be greater pressure on the Europeans to support America in its increasing strategic confrontation with China. 

It is clear that the Europeans, from a security standpoint, would largely prefer Biden to win the next election, but I don't think many people in Europe believe that this will enable Europeans simply to return to inaction, resting on the American umbrella as they did in the past.

AO: Do you think the Europeans are heading in the right direction regarding their security, regardless of who occupies the White House?

NW: I think there are two realisations that are widely shared in Europe. The first is that the world in the 21st century is not the same as the world of the 20th century, and whether we like it or not, the extent of American protection and the American willingness to focus on Europe will diminish during the coming decades, regardless of whether we have a republican or democratic president, and therefore the Europeans should do more to ensure their security. 

The second realisation is that Europe does not necessarily see the diminish of US interest as a bad thing, because Uncle Sam's protection of Europe had its upsides and downsides. The commercial, industrial, cultural, and even psychological interests of the Europeans may be better served by achieving a greater degree of independence from America in order to achieve "strategic autonomy" for Europe. This term is being talked about increasingly. Therefore, I think that there are two realisations there, namely that America will no longer be as engaged as it was in the past, and that this may be a good thing for Europe.

But so often with matters to do with Europe, it is one thing to achieve an intellectual realisation, and it is quite a different matter to do anything about it, i.e. to make the policy changes, the hard decisions to spend money, and to make actions conform with these intellectual realisations. I am much less confident about that second part.

AO: But European security is at stake. Because of US policies in countries like Syria and Iraq, we have an immigration crisis, and Europe is the continent that pays the price. Why can't Europe put in place policies that resist the chaos America is creating?

NW: I think the European foreign policy is not ambitious.

In the Middle East, I believe that the policy of the European Union during the coming period will be defensive and protective. You are right that the biggest concern Europeans are facing is illegal immigration. The second concern is terrorism, a threat that has become present again in France in recent days. But does this mean that Europeans believe they can or should play a more active role in the Middle East? I am sorry to say no. I think that the Europeans have reached the conclusion that any attempt to be active in the Middle East will end in a disaster similar to the experiences of American intervention during the past two or three decades. 

The best way to fight terrorism is to stay out of the Middle East and focus completely on the activities of the security services. The best way to combat illegal immigration is not a military intervention, but to help the region to prevent migrants from leaving for Europe. I think our policy will be very defensive, and not ambitious, and this assessment includes Britain as well.

AO: How will the US elections affect other policies in the region?

NW: If Biden is elected, he will restore the nuclear agreement with Iran, and the Europeans will be very pleased about that. The Europeans also did not support Trump's policy to encourage a rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf states, because they considered that this alliance was driven by hostility to Iran and was not constructive and that Europe could not support it. But the European Union will not do anything specific about it. 

The Europeans will keep talking about the rights of the Palestinians and so forth, but they will not do anything concrete about it. The European instinct will be to keep out the Middle East. After all, oil does not matter that much anymore.

AO: Is this good or bad for Middle East stability?

NW: It could be a good thing. The region has many resources. But there are many problems as well, including climate change, the difficulty of agriculture due to desertification and water shortage. Also, there is the problem of sectarian divisions, which was not always a cause of trouble in the Middle East. 

During the centuries of the region’s history, people of different religions and sects were able to coexist peacefully. Unfortunately, today, these divisions have been deliberately provoked by groups that want to make trouble. But let us be optimistic, because of the human resources, the Middle East is an important partner for trade and investment, and if we were able to move our relations between Arab countries and the European Union, that would be very beneficial.

AO: Trump's presidency considered China the strategic enemy of the US and Russia a challenge. Where does the EU stand?

NW: The EU in the whole is more united in its stance towards Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron tried to press for re-engagement with Russia, but the incident of poisoning Russian dissident Alexei Navalny made it difficult to advance this agenda for the time being. 

But there are European commercial interests in Russia. It is clear that the "Nord Stream2" gas pipeline is a major German commercial interest. 

Regarding China, I think matters between Beijing and the EU are evolving rapidly. Two years ago, I would have said that Europe was hopelessly divided when it came to China. The Chinese market and investment are something very difficult to resist in many European countries. But I think a lot has changed in the last two years. This is partly due to Trump's influence, which has made Europe more aware of China as a strategic competitor and not just a trading partner. 

It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the imbalance in trade relations between Beijing and European countries due to Chinese protectionist practices that make it difficult for EU investments to operate in China. Europe is more concerned about the lack of reciprocity in its trade relations with China. It is also becoming increasingly concerned about Huawei, cyber threats, and the risk of Chinese hegemony. At the same time, Chinese diplomacy became more aggressive, and that is counterproductive.

AO: If Biden wins, where do you think his first foreign visit will be?

NW: He would not come to Britain first (laughs). He might go to Ireland first because his ancestors are from Ireland. Anyway, I think he will not travel anywhere soon due to Covid-19. But when he travels, I think his first European trip will be to Berlin or Paris. In my opinion, he will go to Paris first because I think that the Democrats and Biden are very unhappy with Germany because it has made insufficient efforts to increase its contribution to the NATO budget.

Short link: