Demands for a stronger EU and foreign policy, more commitments to NATO and concerns over Russia’s assertiveness were the leitmotifs as the 55th Munich Security Conference kicked off on Friday (15 February).
More than 600 politicians, including about three dozen heads of state and government and more than 80 ministers, high-ranking military officials and representatives from business, science and international organizations meet this weekend in Bavaria’s capital to discuss international security and defence policy.
The failure of the INF Treaty, Brexit uncertainty and recent disunity in Europe’s foreign policy approach are only some of the security risks a the high-level conference is meant to address.
In his opening speech, MSC chairman Wolfgang Ischinger called on European leaders to “speak with one voice” when facing “a new era of wholesale rivalry between the United States, China and Russia” and urged Europe to take its security more into its own hands.
“We have to tackle it ourselves. There is no one to solve the problems for us,” he told the audience gathered in Munich’s Bayrischer Hof.
The desire for European self-assertion is a common thread of the conference. But while last year there was a Franco-German opening panel, this year it was a German-British appearance.
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen spoke before her British counterpart Gavin Williamson and affirmed that both states wanted to deepen their military partnership despite Brexit.
NATO remains “the first choice for our security”, it is “more than a military alliance”, it is “a political alliance”, she said with a clear commitment to transatlantic relations with the United States. “Our partnership is strong – and it strengthens our sovereignty.”
The defensive tone of her speech, however, illustrated how strongly Berlin is under pressure in its security policy. Right from the start, the minister admitted that the US demand for higher defence spending was justified.
“We Europeans need to throw more weight in. The American call for more fairness in burden-sharing is justified,” von der Leyen said in response to US calls for all NATO members to spend at least 2% of their economic output on defence.
According to calculations, the German defence budget is set to increase to 1.5% of GDP by 2024. According to a study published by the IISS Institute on Friday, European partners are still around $ 100 billion behind, they would have to increase their budgets by 38% to meet the 2%-target.
The German defence minister pointed to the increase in European defence spending, but at the same time highlighted Europe’s efforts towards its own common defence policy. Europe has finally “made its way towards a European Defence Union”, which also includes a strengthening of NATO.
Similar talking points came from German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.
“Subject or object of world politics – this is the crucial question of the future before which Europe stands”, he said describing the strengthening of Europe as a “national core interest” of Germany.
He was also the second official to explicitly include the UK in a German vision of the European security structure: “Germany and its European partners – and here I explicitly include Britain – need Europe as a strong actor and not as an object of global politics.”
Maas, however, warned against giving too much space to the debate on defence spending in security policy. “Security is not measured by us alone in growing defence budgets. There may be different views, “he said.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian praised the European contribution in NATO as “strong”. The EU had “created considerable European capabilities” within the Alliance, he said, referring to recent European initiatives such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund. The aim of the Europeans must be “to become more and more full within the transatlantic alliance”.
Poland’s Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz also spoke out in favour of strengthening European defence capabilities as long as there is no duplication. “When it comes to synergies in NATO, that is fine,” he said but warned that if that means independence from NATO, “we will have problems”.
“We need an American presence in Europe,” he told the conference audience.
Similarly, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that more EU “strategic autonomy” and transatlantic cooperation were “two sides of the same coin”.
“In contrary to the past, that the European Union has become a real security provider. Because we can be – and sometimes more than others – a security provider ‘at large’,” she told the conference audience.
No progress in Russia spat
As expected, nuclear deterrence and arms control dominate this year’s Munich Security Conference. However, a unanimous stance on how to respond to Russia’s alleged breach of the INF Treaty is not yet clear.
Addressing the annual MSC for the first time, British Defence Minister Gavin Williamson, meanwhile, lashed out against Russia’s security approach in a speech that was rated as hawkish.
“NATO matters more today because an old adversary is very much back in the game,” he said, adding Moscow was “trying to goad the West into a new arms race it simply is not interested in and does not want, making the world a less safe place.”
Williamson urged that the West “must use all the pressure to bring Russia back on track.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also stressed the importance of dialogue with Moscow. “It is important to meet and discuss difficult issues such as the violation of the INF Treaty,” he said after his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the conference to discuss the conflict over the arms control treaty.
Moscow has “another chance to become compliant again,” he said, referring to the six-month deadline for the official entry into force of the US contract. “The clock is ticking”.
“There were no new signals from the Russian side,” he told reporters after his meeting. However, he repeated NATO’s position issued after a NATO defence ministers meeting earlier this week, that the Alliance does not intend to station land-based nuclear missiles in Europe.
‘Elephants in the room’
But as most appearances tried to invoke a spirit of European unity, the overall picture appeared somewhat flawed.
There was the notable absence of French President Emmanuel Macron, who only a few weeks earlier together with Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged to strengthen the Franco-German alliance and cooperation, including common approaches to foreign and security policy, in a bilateral post-war reconciliation treaty.
“Of course, Macron’s refusal for a joint panel performance with the German Chancellor can be strictly domestic-politics motivated. But if the will to show European unity was important enough to him, Emanuel would certainly have found a few hours for Angela,” a diplomat was overheard saying.
Later in the evening, underlying transatlantic rifts became evident as US-Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech on the sidelines of the conference, speaking in the presence of a large US delegation at the presentation of a newly donated John McCain Prize.
When Pence forwarded “greetings of the 45th President of the United States of America, President Donald Trump,” there was no applause but five seconds of silence, before he continued with his speech.
In Munich, Trump’s vice president, who had massively criticised the Iranian policy of European allies at a Middle East Conference in Warsaw, speaks on Saturday and is expected to face off Lavrov over the INF Treaty later the day.