October 4, 2021

There are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen, as a quote dubiously attributed to Lenin states. Last week was one of those weeks. As it began, I argued that the most significant short term effect of the Aukus agreement would not be in the distant Pacific, but rather here on our home continent, by rapidly accelerating Macron’s quest for European strategic autonomy from Nato structures under French patronage. The announcement in the following days of France’s naval deal and defence pact with Greece is a dramatic illustration of these processes at work in Europe’s rapidly shifting security environment.

After years of back and forth negotiations, the Greek Ministry of Defence finally settled on France over the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and the United States as the provider of the Hellenic Navy’s new frigates. It’s a vital upgrade given the deterioration of both the Mediterranean’s security environment and of Greek naval capacity following more than a decade of austerity. The FDI frigates chosen pack a powerful punch, tilting the scales back in Greece’s favour in its increasingly heated contest of primacy in the Aegean with Erdogan’s Turkey.

To accompany the new frigates, there is a strong likelihood of Greece also buying a number of Gowind-class corvettes from France as part of its rapid naval build-up. Coupled with Greece’s recent purchase of 24 Rafale fighter jets, France has emerged as the country’s most significant supplier of arms, at a time when the likelihood of open conflict with Turkey is greater than it has been in decades.

Yet as with Aukus, the true significance of the deal lies less in the hardware purchased, than in the alliance-building underpinning it. The “Strategic Partnership for Cooperation in Defence and Security” agreement unveiled in Paris contains a mutual defence assistance clause in the event that either country is attacked anywhere on its territory, using “all the means at their disposal, including, if needed, armed violence,” to fend off the aggressor.

In doing so, Macron stated, “we commit ourselves to protect [Greece] in the event of intrusion, attack or aggression. This is my idea of friendship and of the European independence and European territorial unity that we value,” and thus a direct French promise to defend Greece from an attack by its purported Nato ally Turkey. When the two countries came to the brink of war last year, it was France, alone among all EU and Nato countries, that supported Greece, both diplomatically and through its deployment of French warships and fighter jets to the eastern Mediterranean. Under Macron, France has become, simply, Greece’s strategic patron, an informal relationship the new agreement has now formalised.

As Macron stated at the signing ceremony, “Europeans must get over their naivety. When we’re under pressure from powers that are sometimes becoming harsher, to react and show that we too have the power and capacity to defend ourselves doesn’t mean giving in to escalation, it merely means ensuring we’re respected… we must, as Europeans, play our part in our own protection.”

For his part, Greece’s premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis observed that with this “very strong alliance, which essentially goes beyond each other’s obligations within the European Union and NATO”, France and Greece are “taking the first step towards a European strategic autonomy”. This is, in other words, the first tentative realisation of that bugbear of the perennially supine German security establishment, as well as of central and eastern European EU powers fearful of losing the American defence umbrella.

Yet significantly, Macron took great pains to change the frame of the tiresome strategic autonomy debate, emphasising that it is not a question of rejecting American military hegemony, but rather of responding to America’s strategic shift to the Pacific, which will mean a diminished involvement in European affairs. As he observed, “for just over 10 years now, the United States of America has been focusing a lot on itself and has strategic interests that are being redirected towards China and the Pacific”, and “it would also be naïve of us – or rather, we’d be making a terrible mistake – if we didn’t seek to learn lessons from it and act accordingly. And so it’s with the same pragmatism, the same clear-sightedness about our independence, that we must, as Europeans, play our part in our own protection.”

Instead of spurning the US defence umbrella, Macron stresses that strategic autonomy is not a replacement for Nato, but the enhancement of its European pole through self-sufficiency. By framing Europe’s strategic autonomy as a form of burden-sharing, allowing the United States to concentrate its attention and forces on the part of the world most important to its survival as global hegemon, Macron has, in effect, called Germany’s bluff. After all, the insistence with which Germany stresses the existential importance of the NATO alliance is matched only by its commitment to shirking any serious attempt at fielding a militarily capable force of their own within it, a long-standing complaint of American administrations.

But the time for German free-riding has passed. With the Americans girding up for an air and naval contest in the Pacific, and their appetite for military interventions in the Islamic world blunted by two decades of failure, Macron has seized the chance for Europe to take the dominant role in providing the continent’s security against its troubled near abroad.

What is perhaps most noteworthy is that the agreement seems to have taken place with Biden’s blessing. While Northern European analysts tend not to bother themselves overmuch with tracking developments in Greece, it is significant that Mitsotakis had preceded the ceremony with a series of warm assurances to the United States that the country remains a “strong and reliable ally” within the Nato framework, and that “since 1952, Nato has been at the heart of Greece’s security and defence architecture.”

At the Athens meeting of Nato defence chiefs which immediately preceded the announcement, the Greek Chief of General Staff Konstantinos Floros pledged that Greece will honour all its commitments and obligations, and remain “a pillar of stability in the eastern Mediterranean with respect for international law, good neighbourly relations and cooperation”.

The unspoken contrast is of course with Nato’s problem child, Turkey, a constant source of security crises and aggressive interventions across the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, and already sanctioned by the United States for its purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles. Trump’s warm personal relationship with Erdogan — the origins of which are a matter of speculation — has been replaced by an atmosphere of chilly froideur on the American side, with no realistic prospect of improvement.

Indeed, just as the French and Greeks were inking their agreement, Turkey’s erratic strongman Erdogan was meeting Putin in Sochi, suggesting that he would buy even more S-400s, and pledging further defence cooperation with Russia in space, and in the joint development of warships, jet engines and submarines.

As the US defence relationship with Turkey becomes ever more strained, Greece, supported by the strong efforts of the American ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, has sought to supplant Turkey as America’s chosen partner in the region. Starting with the joint air and naval base in Crete’s Souda Bay — a strategically important deepwater harbour Churchill wanted Britain to possess as an “amphibian citadel” in World War Two — Greece has given the US basing rights across Thessaly in central Greece and usage of the port of Alexandroupoli in Thrace, an important logistics asset for any future operation in the Balkans — or indeed, as Turkish analysts relentlessly sound the alarm, in Turkey.

While Erdogan’s national security advisor Mesut Hakkı Caşın is doing the rounds of Turkish cable news networks threatening to invade Greece to throw the Americans out of Thrace and attack American troops in Syria, the Greeks are quietly soaking up American military largesse in the form of helicopters, upgraded fighter jets, joint training and equipment for Greek special forces and airborne units. Furthermore, the United States is offering strong background encouragement for Greece’s growing web of military and diplomatic alliances with the Middle Eastern powers Egypt, the UAE, Israel and Saudi Arabia, all American partners, and all united by their shared antipathy to Erdogan.

Given the strategic centrality to Greece of its deepening defence relationship with the US, it is simply impossible to imagine that Mitsotakis did not ask and receive the Biden administration’s blessing for the pact with France, which indicates America’s newfound acceptance of a European drift towards strategic autonomy. Indeed, the State Department’s only comment on the pact to Greek media was to note that “the US and Greece enjoy a robust defense relationship rooted in our shared values”, and to stress that “we strongly support Greece’s role in creating stability in the region and look forward to continuing to work closely with Greece to advance our shared goals for peace and prosperity in the region including through our robust relationship with the Hellenic Navy”.

Over the course of a few days, then, European strategic autonomy under Macron’s leadership has gone from being a source of existential anguish and circular debate among German thinktankers and derision among British analysts, to a matter of fact in the Eastern Mediterranean. By framing it as a means to strengthen Nato and to grant the United States cover to refocus itself on the Pacific, Macron has won Biden’s tacit blessing, outflanking his European critics.

Ahead of US Secretary of State Blinken’s trip to Paris this week, the State Department has already emphasised that it “will be looking at transatlantic security, and European security, and ways that we can support France’s efforts to strengthen European security and defense capacity,” as long as it is “in conformity with NATO,” stressing that “it is very much in our interest and Europe’s interest for those capacities to be strengthened. And having a more effective, capable European alliance is very much in our interest as well.”

The Biden administration has, therefore, essentially outsourced the role of containing Erdogan in the Eastern Mediterranean and generally upholding Europe’s security in the wider region to France. It is, from an American perspective, the European equivalent of AUKUS, and not its antithesis, formalising a small core of capable countries willing to uphold security in regions important to their strategic vision, and sidelining the rest.

Indeed, we can interpret the Franco-Greek pact as a form of sub-Nato alliance, just like the new defence cooperation agreement between Sweden, Denmark and Norway, which may become the model for the organisation’s near future. To reassure Poland and the Baltic states, no doubt in future a similar agreement will provide them with an equivalent alliance to lessen their fears of Russian encroachment. Indeed, this may become a useful future role for Britain, if and when the Army, weakened by decades of underinvestment and mismanaged defence procurement, is capable of fielding a significant armoured force again.

The fact is, as the French analyst Benjamin Haddad noted recently, “the quicker we acknowledge something structural is changing in transatlantic relations, the better we can transform them in a way that serves the interests and security of both sides”. Europe isn’t pushing the Americans out; instead the Americans are disengaging of their own volition, keenly aware, as Haddad notes with an eye on Germany, that “pro-American sentiment can also conveniently be used to avoid increasing defence spending”.

The current Nato framework hobbles Europe’s military capacity rather than advancing it, and Haddad is correct in claiming that “European autonomy is not competing with the alliance”, but instead “could save the transatlantic relationship.” For now, both Macron and Biden win from the new arrangement; the formal assertions of continued fealty to Washington remain true, even as they set the scene for Nato’s obsolescence. Only the coming decades will tell whether or not history will assess the pact, as Macron claims, as “a contribution to Europe’s independence, to the strengthening of Europe’s sovereignty” in what is already becoming a post-Nato world.