Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Aachen Treaty and Great Power Competition

First of all, a due premise: if it wasn’t already clear, I will warn that I am a convinced Atlanticist. I literally have a NATO star mosaic in the alleyway leading to the door of my home, designed by me and built by my ever skilled father, who has worked so much and for so long in his life to pick up an amazing breadth of abilities.

This week, at my new job at Rivista Italiana Difesa (Italian Defence Magazine, if you want a tentative translation), arguably the best defence-themed periodic in Italy and one with a long tradition, I’ve been reviewing an important geopolitics article titled “The return of Charles the Great?”, authored by an Italian defence commentator with decades of experience. He is most clearly not an Atlanticist, so we cooperate but also regularly disagree, even quite vehemently, since his opinion of the United States is about as moderate of that of Vladimir Putin himself.

For once, though, we are in complete agreement on what is the current direction of travel in Europe. The title of his article should already have given you a clue, and I’ll give you another by telling you that the recent Aachen Treaty is the key element at the center of the reasoning.
Of course, while we read the implications of the event almost in the exact same way, we do completely disagree on whether it is a good or a bad development. He thinks it is a good thing in an anti-american optic; I am horrified.

Another thing we do essentially agree upon, however, is the fact that there has been way too little talk about the Aachen Treaty, what it says and moreover on what it implies without saying it aloud.
While at first glance the Aachen Treaty provisions might sound just like “more of the same”, reaffirming things that have been already said in the past, there is every reason to take it very seriously.
Germany and France are aligning their policies, with defence front and centre, in new and far more ambitious ways. The closeness envisaged by the Treaty in economics and defence and foreign policy matters approaches the terms of a Confederation, and effectively impresses a whole new dynamic and speed to the maturation of an European project. Note that I use “an” European project and not “the” European project because the direction of travel taken by France and Germany actually goes so far past the current EU integration that it might end up finding resistance coming exactly through current EU organizations.

If you have followed the political debate in the last while you will not have missed the repeated claims that an European army is coming. Claims that now come from the like of Merkel and Macron themselves, although some Remain-inspired media continues to approach the issue as if it was fantasy and conspiracy theorism from this or that association. It can no longer be denied that things are moving, and that they are indeed accellerating. 
It might not be EU-wide for many years still, but the Aachen Treaty sure goes a long way towards forming one military force composed of France and Germany. Joint decision-making, joint meetings of ministries, a new joint council, and joint deployments are all part of the Treaty.

You should moreover not have missed the part about France “loaning” its seat at the UN Security Council to Germany. The issue has been reported almost as badly as the “EU Army” one, which is caught between the two extremes of the “absorption by stealth” and “it’s not true at all!”.
France might or might not let Germany sit in its seat for a while, but what France has promised to do is to campaign within the Security Council to obtain the addition of a new and permanent seat specifically for Germany.
While this is unlikely to succeed, it is an unequivocal signal that Germany thinks that its period of repentance for the past is over, and France agrees. It is actually pretty easy to imagine the current hopelessly confused political class in Britain giving support to the initiative just as a way to show that they really still side with Europe. 

You might not have heard about the musings coming from the Munich Security Conference about the role that France’s nuclear deterrent “should” play in “Europe”. Or at least, I’ll correct, in the context of the Aachen Treaty. This aspect gained even less air time on the media, and most of the comments were quick attempts to once more hide the evidence. 
France already tried to get Germany to pay some of the costs of its 'Force de Frappe', but in 2007 there weren’t the conditions for such a move. Not yet.
Now, however, Aachen goes a long way towards opening the door for such a development.
While the European Union is a superpower on paper but not in fact due to its inner divisions, a combination of Germany’s economic might and France’s nuclear deterrent is a major world power from the day one. When you hear all the speeches and comments about the new age of inter-state competition, you’ll better start counting in the France-Germany combination. 

You might not have heard in the generalist news about the renewed and stronger than ever push in Germany against NATO Nuclear Sharing, and against the presence of dual-key American B61-12 nuclear bombs in the country. But it is highly likely that you will hear about this more and more frequently in the future.
Germany has already started landing blows on Nuclear Sharing by arbitrarily excluding the F-35 from the race for the replacement of its remaining Tornado bombers. The F-35A is the intended carrier (together with the F-15E, but that is relevant only to the US) of the B61-12 bomb, with an integration programme already ongoing and other NATO Nuclear Sharing partners already on board.
Germany, on the other hand, is restricting its choices for the replacement of the Tornado to the Typhoon and Super Hornet, both aircraft with no nuclear strike capability and no defined path towards ever acquiring it.
Keeping the Super Hornet as candidate effectively means, with 99.9% certainty, that the “race” is a complete farce, and Typhoon it is. Germany has literally forced the head of its Air Force and a few other high officers to leave post over their publicly stated preference for the F-35, and this tells you something. Considerable political pressure was applied on Belgium as well NOT to chose the F-35, although in this case Germany and France were eventually rebuffed.
The Tornado was European-built and carries the B61, so there is no definitive reason why Germany couldn’t simply add B61-12 integration to the cost of its new Typhoons, but I’d be very, very surprised if the attempt to do this didn’t lead to protests over the cost and, right afterwards, to accusations against the US of making it “more complex and more expensive” than it should be, as a punishment for not purchasing the F-35. It’s really, really easy to see coming.

Ghedi air base: american nuclear bomb, Italian Tornado bomber. NATO Nuclear Sharing is a key component of Europe's security. 

And while Germany has formally sided with the US on the withdrawal from the INF treaty, it has also made clear that new American missile systems in Europe are not welcome, which is kind of a contradictory position to take. 

The disagreements on B61 and on the way ahead post INF are a perfect excuse for Germany and France to press on with their greater alignment. Germany might soon decide to pull out of Nuclear Sharing altogether, and that would be a huge blow to NATO and the obvious first step towards seeking refuge under France’s own nuclear umbrella. Which, naturally, the two countries will then try to present as Europe’s nuclear umbrella, seeking financial contributions from the other European countries as well.
It might take time, but this is the direction of travel. Whoever thinks that France has committed to giving Germany a seat at the UN Security Council virtually for free is either willfully blind or a complete fool.

The bilateral nature of Aachen means that it does not technically affect EU members, which on the other hand have no effective way to counter or influence it in any way. It is immediately clear, however, that this level of integration between Paris and Berlin is going to have immense consequences for the whole European Union. 
Italy, through Prime Minister Conte, has remarked that the new UN seat should, if ever created, go to the European Union as a whole and not to Germany, which is an eminently sensible observation to make, albeit complex to turn into reality. Naturally, his remark was played down, despite being arguably very pro-EU, because he is, of course, “the puppet of Salvini” and thus just another sovranist enemy.

Yes, the sovranists. The new enemy of the EU is Sovranism. Populism was an earlier phase, now the threat is sovranism. Because sovranism means that other countries will try to resist the de-facto instauration of an economic and military hegemony of France and Germany, united politically and economically and shielded by a credible, non-american nuclear umbrella. Sovranism is a reaction against external control and globalisation, and as such it is an obstacle. 

America, and not Russia, is the untrustworthy side for many in Europe. European and American media alike will tell you that it is because of president Trump, but this is, in good measure, a lie or, at best, an half-truth.
Trump is not the beginning of anti-american feelings in Europe, nor is he the end of them. He is a convenient figleaf, a perfect excuse to press on with the new global ambitions of Germany and France while throwing the blame on the Atlantic side.
It is not Trump that is abandoning Europe. He has actually reversed, at least partially, years of American drawdown in Europe, which Obama happily accelerated. He has been extremely tough on the INF breach. He has committed to more American troops in Europe and he keeps asking for a stronger NATO through investment from the European partners (he's been more vocal, but he is not the first to do so). He opposes the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, too, which is in the interests of Russia and damages those of Ukraine.

And that is exactly the problem. He is doing too much. The truth, I fear, is that there are very strong currents of thought in Europe which were far happier when American troops were traveling towards CONUS, rather than coming from CONUS to Europe.
We know which side is co-funding Nord Stream 2 and holding hands with Putin. And it is not Trump.

And then there is Brexit. Brexit is the "mother of all sovranisms", the greatest-ever form of resistance against the constant expansion of centralised european powers. This makes it the supreme evil. And yet, on the other hand, Brexit brings the UK away from Veto powers in Europe, which are now one of the greatest problems that Germany and France face. The truth? Brexit is a blessing for France and Germany. 
Their hegemonic project in Europe is now free from a heavy anchor which was holding it back. And they have pretty much said as much, haven’t they? The UK’s constant prudence on European initiatives, especially in the field of defence, has been remarked more than once, in most rude form in the last few weeks. The "british friends" rethoric is incredibly hollow, and one of the most amazing things about Brexit is how many britons helplessly drink from that poisoned spring. 
There have actually been remarkably unfriendly accusations coming from Europe, and the side which has tried to put up walls is not led by London. The amazingly long time it took for Europe to begin reciprocating the promise of rights for british citizens on EU soil is plenty noticeable, yet the Remain side is strangely willing to let it all pass. For some, the EU seems to have turned into some sort of divinity. 

I get the feeling that many in the UK and the US, including most if not all the media, do not realize how much hostility there is in some quarters against America’s perceived control over Europe. And against the UK, historically seen as America’s agent within the European Union. I am amazed to see the naivety with which the issue is debated in the USA and in the UK.
You would be shocked to see the ferocity of the arguments and words used by my illustrious colleague in the article I’ve mentioned. But what you especially don’t seem to realize is that his thoughts are shared by many. Too many, perhaps. Sadly, for many the UK is still the "Perfidius Albion" of fascist memory.  

The UK and US have not yet awakened to the truth. This is NOT a reaction to Trump and Brexit. Trump and Brexit are welcome excuses that are being used to camouflage a sharp acceleration in plans to truly make Europe, or at least the Paris-Berlin core, an increasingly antagonist side to the US. Alignment is over. Disagreements are going to be far more frequent in the future.
When I see American media and commentators wondering if the alliance with Europe “can survive Trump”, I bitterly remark that the alliance has been changing and dying from well before Trump.
Going back to my colleague, he openly talks of NATO as a novel  Delian League, with the US playing the part of Athens and exploiting the alliance to control the other cities / European countries. Do you remember how the Delian League ended?
It is a sorry state of affairs, years in the making. And it is not going to heal easily. If at all. 
Regardless of whoever will be elected after Trump, it is indeed unlikely that things will ever go back to the way they were, simply because it is not an issue of Trump or no-Trump to start with.

The same is true of Brexit. Regardless of who is prime minister, regardless of Customs Union or not and regardless of how much London promises to do against Russia in the Baltic and in Norway, relationships with the new center of Europe will stay tense.
Nothing is ever universal, of course, but let me remark that there is a political current, Europe-wide, which is all too happy to have London’s veto out of the way. The feeling is that America’s “undercover agent” is now out of the room.
The use of inflammatory language over Gibraltar and many other controversies will remain in the long term, regardless of what the UK might do or say. The US and UK should both stop being so penitent about Trump and Brexit and realize that a new phase has begun. Great power competition it is, but China is not the only rival to be worried about. 
Germany-France are a rival. And the EU as a whole will be, if the new center can win over the resistences of the periphery.
The EU is a Superpower, economically. It isn’t a great power politically and militarily because it is still divided. But the new France – Germany alignment, on its own, and particularly if the nuclear deterrent situation goes as we imagine it, will generate a voice that will more often than not become the de-facto “european” position. Exactly as is happening with the new FCAS fighter jet, France and Germany are trying to “define the project” and then have “partners” tag along. In front of an essential "fait accompli", the Union will follow the hegemons. 
And as a major power with a major voice, it will increasingly speak against America and the UK. The sooner the anglosphere realizes this, the better.
If you can’t see what is happening, you are pretty blind. You can either be happy with it, like my colleague, or be worried by it, like me. But please, don’t pretend it isn’t happening! 

The next phase of the struggle internal to Europe is now officially between Germany-France and the periphery of Europe.
The periphery means Poland and in lesser measure the rest of East Europe, which are great NATO supporters as they do not trust (for very good reasons, if you ask me) France and Germany to be able and willing to defend them from Russia.
Poland has already said that it will gladly take those US troops, missiles and nukes that Germany would really like to be gone. Poland has even dared voicing support for the UK, too. Poland is sovranist. Poland is an obstacle.
The next few years might end up seeing Germany and France increasingly in disagreement with the US, increasingly hostile on the economic front, increasingly calling for European “autonomy” from the US, while still effectively defended by US troops, based in Poland. While still blaming the US for the fracture, in fact. Regardless of  what the president’s name will be. Just like now: shame Trump, but demand he does not leave Syria. Protest his every plan and request, but do not contemplate the option of using European soldiers to secure what is, in words at least, seen as a key security crisis right on Europe’s threshold.
Hegemony is an addicting thing: it is not likely that we will see a climbdown from Aachen. There will be disagreements and difficulties between Paris and Berlin (defence export is just one of many potential thorns on this rose), but the axis will hold because it is clearly advantageous for both countries.

The periphery also means Italy. It is not a case that the new “public enemy number 1” is now Sovranism. The greatest danger, specifically, is represented by sovranists with veto powers within the EU. Sovranists which might soon fill a great number of seats in the EU parliament after the elections of May. Sovranists that might turn the EU into a brake, rather than a tool in the hands of Paris and Berlin. 
Salvini is a sovranist: he does not quite advocate leaving the EU (not anymore, or perhaps not yet depending on how you look at it…), but he is certainly a source of resistance and opposition. And he is popular. He, and Italy, are the next big obstacle. Italy either has to be won over (and already years ago Paris tried by proposing a treaty to Italy which would have looked a bit like Aachen) or silenced in some ways. And make no mistake: the international media campaign against Salvini will keep getting more virulent. And Spread attacks against Italy will continue, too. They worked in 2011, after all, when the last Berlusconi government was effectively forced to resign and was replaced by unelected, appointed Mario Monti and the semi-elected leftist, europeist governments that followed.
The same left that went into the 2018 elections under “+ Europa” and “United States of Europe” banners, only to be savagely punished by the electorate.
Italy is in the Eurozone. It has joined the currency that was custom-tailored over Germany's needs. And because of it is greatly vulnerable. 
In the political battle for Italy, even Berlusconi has now resumed usefulness in the eyes of the EU: babysitted by Antonio Tajani, president of the EU Parliament, he is (so far unsuccessfully) trying to simultaneously ride on Salvini’s wake by formally siding with him in regional elections, while savagely opposing the government and sticking to an Europeist agenda. Berlusconi and the candidates of the Left all aspire to being the Italian Macron, defeating the evil sovranism / populism and climbing on a stage with blue flags waving and Europe's anthem blaring in place of the national anthem.

Don’t undervalue the role that Italy has to play, even unknowingly, in the next chapter of Europe’s history.
Regardless of what your misguided media like to tell you, Salvini is probably your most important ally in the next few years.
But you have to awaken from your self-defeatist, absurdly repentant “it’s all our fault” slumber.


  1. Great article that I more less agree with totally. As someone who has German and British parentage, I find the whole anti-NATO/American dialogue reprehensible, as I do a lot of the anti-BREXIT dialogue especially from the Fat Cats at the EU, who STILL fail to understand they have a major series of problems. Where all of this is going to end up I do not know, but it gives me serious cause for concern.

  2. I have just read the treaty. It does not even try to conceal the aim of guiding the future of the European Union. Would it be correct to say this treaty will weaken the voice of other EU nations, Denmark ,Holland etc?

  3. Thank you for making this article. It is the best I have seen regarding the Aachen treaty, and I too am a convinced Atlanticist. Only difference is that I'm from Tennessee.

  4. In my view there are two aspects of Brexit that are unparalleled;

    The first is the ability the EU has had to turn the British people against themselves. I can't tell you how it pains me to see millions of predominantly young Britons repeating, verbatim, the EU's own agenda against the UK. They've bought into this idea that the EU is some sort of panacea, that it's a utopia in the making... that Brexit represents a huge economic risk to the UK, whilst simultaneously ignoring the fact that Germany itself is on the cusp of recession. They ignore all the EU's flaws and accept wholesale it's frankly outrageous claims - not least that it is the reason for peace in Europe, when frankly that claim lies exclusively with NATO.

    The other unparalleled aspect of Brexit, and the one I think the British don't appreciate, is just how incredibly resillient their economy has been in the face of all this... far from a recession, the UK economy is growing better than half of Western Europe in the face of extraordinary uncertainty.

    I think the real problem with Brexit is that it is one of those global events, like Suez, like Dunkirk, like the Falklands, like the assasination of Franz Ferdinand etc. that requires REAL leadership... and its come at a time when the British political system is paralyzed between a well meaning but exceptionally weak leader (Theresa May) and a less well meaning but totally inept marxist-socialist (Jeremy Corbyn).

    I think the UK would be a very different country if we were looking at a Dan Jarvis (Labour) vs Boris Johnson (Conservative) dynamic. Brexit calls for real, aggressive, balls-to-the-wall leadership... but its difficult to see that happening unless May is ousted in favour of someone like David Davis or Boris Johnson.

  5. Your assumption is that the UK and USA are blind, however it’s more along the lines of they don’t care. Why should Britain and America spend large sums of money on armies designed to defend eastern Europe from a Russia that can post no significant threat to them. If Germany and France want to stand up them let them although the truth is germany does not want to and France can’t afford to. Too many countries in Europe were too quiet for too long happy to allow the British to wield the veto against integration while acting like they supported it. Time fo them to step up up too.

  6. Congratulations on your new job ! Good luck and have fun with it :-)

  7. Interesting post. History tells us that when international alliances disturb the balance of power that those nations which are left out, and thus feel themselves disadvantaged, will form counterbalancing alliances with other countries. So where do you think Italy will look to to restore equilibrium, and what form do you think this will take? Diplomatic, cultural, security cooperation, military cooperation, space, R&D, armaments development etc?


Everybody can comment on this blog without needing a Blogger account. It is meant to keep the discussion free and open to everyone. Unfortunately, anonymous accounts keep the door open for spammers and trolls, so i'm forced to moderate comments and approve them before they appear. Apologies for the inconvenience.