Bringing Europe's Leaders Together

A year of reckoning for European security

2024 will be a critical test for Franco-German-British cooperation as Europe faces a perfect storm, writes Peter Watkins.

It’s early January – and there’s a chill in the air. The chill reflects the international situation. It’s hard to remember the beginning of a new year when there was such a sense of unease at what the coming twelve months would bring – perhaps one has to go back to 1991 when we knew that a war to eject occupying Iraqi forces from Kuwait was imminent.

The three main causes of this unease are: Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine; the situation in Israel and Gaza; and forthcoming elections. Russia’s war on Ukraine is approaching the end of its second year, with no sign that the Kremlin has abandoned its maximalist objective of subjugating Ukraine – and with a resurgence of Russian missile attacks on Ukrainian cities and civil infrastructure. The situation in Israel and Gaza – stemming from Hamas’s brutal attack on Israeli civilians and the Israeli government’s efforts in response to extirpate Hamas – includes a growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Tensions are already spreading, most notably with the attacks by the Houthi rebels in Yemen on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. Significant elections take place in a range of countries in 2024. The first is in Taiwan on 13th January – and could lead to increased pressure on the island from China. There will be a general election in the UK – although the international implications of the potential outcomes will be limited (given the relatively high degree of consensus on international security and defence matters between the main political parties). The outcome of the Russian election in mid-March will be just more of the same – Vladimir Putin and his clique. The one looming in people’s minds is the US presidential election in November. The election of Donald Trump could have profoundly negative implications for the Western alliance – and, as the clock ticks down to election day, the US is likely to be increasingly consumed by domestic politics as the global situation becomes more challenging.

What are the implications for France, Germany and the UK – and the relationships between them? While the Israel/Gaza situation is a domestically delicate issue for all three countries, there is a reasonably high degree of consensus in their approach to the region. None wishes to see tensions escalate, although there may be varying enthusiasm for contributing to military formations seeking to deter Iranian-backed adventurism by the Houthis and/or Hezbollah. As the three leading European states with longstanding links to the region, it is crucial that there is close coordination between Berlin, London and Paris on their communications with the government in Tel Aviv and with other players.

There is little difference in view between the three capitals on the baleful consequences for European security of Russian success in Ukraine, even if only the consolidation of its illegal territorial gains thus far. But the risks posed by a revanchist Russia seem to be better understood by our colleagues in Romania, Poland and the Baltic States. Our countries have made significant contributions to building up Ukraine’s capabilities – but we need to do a lot more to ensure that Russia does not succeed. The manufacture and supply of munitions is not keeping pace with consumption – while Russia is putting its economy on a war footing and, despite sanctions, increasing its capacity to produce equipment and munitions.  More needs to be done to close loopholes in the sanctions regimes. All this is non-discretionary and urgent work – statesmanship will be required in all three countries to ensure that it receives the right focus and priority despite domestic political distractions.

Even greater statecraft will be required by the third challenge – the political trajectory in the US and the potential outcome of the election. It is widely suspected that Putin hopes to benefit from that and is calibrating his strategy towards Ukraine accordingly. Some French commentators have long argued that European security should be less dependent on the US. German and (especially) British ones have been more cautious on this point, concerned that European states lack the resources (and will) to invest in the necessary compensating capabilities – and fearful of generating a self-fulfilling prophecy. For years, this was a largely hypothetical debate which could be enjoyed because it was somewhat abstract. But now the stakes are higher, much higher. For broader geopolitical reasons and whatever the outcome of the domestic political contest, the US will be increasingly – but not exclusively – focused on Indo-Pacific security. And US voters increasingly question why their country makes a contribution to European security way beyond that made by many (wealthy) European ones. But one outcome of the election may drastically accelerate these trends. France, Germany and the UK need to work closely together to ensure that Americans of all political stripes understand that the security of the European continent is in the US’s interest as well as ours (sustaining the US’s position in the Indo-Pacific would be much more difficult in the absence of a strong US/European alliance); that the US contribution to European security is welcome; but that we are serious about contributing more to it ourselves and leading other European states to do so too.

2024 will be a pivotal year for international security – and, not least, European security. France, Germany and the UK have cooperated on security and defence for over 60 years – whether in the framework of NATO or the EU, bilaterally, and sometimes trilaterally. This year, Europe’s three leading security and defence powers will need to work even more closely together – and provide wider leadership. The Club of Three’s mission to enhance dialogue between the three countries and generate strategic thinking on Europe’s future can scarcely have been more salient than now – nor its defence and security pillar of activities more relevant.

January 2024

Peter Watkins is Club of Three Senior Adviser – Defence and International Security. He is also an Associate Fellow at Chatham House and Visiting Senior Fellow at LSE IDEAS. Peter was Director General, Strategy and International, at the UK Ministry of Defence between 2014 and 2018.