LONG known for its “soft power”, the European Union is finally getting serious about upping it’s “hard power” defence and security credentials. And while the plans are still relatively modest in scope and content — there’s not going to be a European army any time soon — the bloc is moving forward with more determination than many anticipated.

Interestingly for those who, like this correspondent, keep a watch on such developments, the latest constellation of EU defence ministers includes five trailblazing women who could finally get long-standing plans for a European defence union off the ground.

It’s a historic shift in a world long dominated by male defence chiefs. Even in Europe where women have made more inroads into political life than in many other regions, men have dominated the world of guns and tanks. But no longer.

Until 2002, Finland was the only EU country to have had a female defence minister (twice). Last week’s meeting, on the other hand, was attended by Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen, France’s Sylvie Goulard, Italy’s Roberta Pinotti, Spain’s María Dolores de Cospedal, the Netherlands’ Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert and EU’s “high representative” for foreign and security policy Federica Mogherini.

The spotlight is especially strong on Goulard, a member of the European Parliament, who like the new French President Emmanuel Macron is an ardent pro-European politician.

The appointment signals Macron’s determination to work towards greater European defence integration. A close ally of Macron who speaks four languages, Goulard is respected in Brussels as a straight talker, having acted as adviser to former European Commission president Romano Prodi.

The new EU focus on security is not surprising. European governments which are also members of Nato are under intense pressure from the US to increase defence spending to the UN target of two per cent of GDP.

Some like Germany have baulked at the US criticism but many others agree that the bloc must spend more on defence to ensure its own security and to be taken more seriously by a watching world.

Dependence on the US-led Nato alliance also makes the EU a permanent junior partner in other aspects of the transatlantic relationship, according to some EU policymakers.

Although he is scheduled to attend the upcoming Nato summit, US President Donald Trump’s on-off trades against Nato have added to Europe’s unease about excessive reliance on the organisation.

Difficult relations with Moscow have further bolstered the EU defence drive as has the need to cooperate more effectively and efficiently on counterterrorism operations. In addition, opinion polls show European public favouring more intra-European security cooperation.

Ironically, the imminent departure of Britain from the EU has also given a boost to the plans. France and Britain are the two European nations with the most military clout.

But, led by France and Germany, the EU has in fact identified defence cooperation as a key area for rebooting the crisis-hit bloc after Britain’s traumatic vote to leave.

“This is one of the fields where European Union integration is advancing the most,” Mogherini said after EU defence ministers met in Malta recently. “Now with crises all around, we hear from our partners, starting from the UN … that a rapid reaction force from the EU would be needed to be deployed in some crisis areas,” she said.

Britain, nuclear armed and with a permanent veto at the United Nations, long opposed such efforts, fearing the creation of a “European army” commanded from Brussels. But Brexit has taken Britain out of the equation.

In March, defence and foreign ministers approved Mogherini’s plans for an embryonic military headquarters to coordinate EU overseas security operations, and military training missions in countries such as Somalia and Mali.

In other decisions, the EU has agreed to strengthen security cooperation with partner countries, with the aim to adopt more strategic Common and Security Defence Policy (CSDP) partnerships with a focus on partner countries that share EU values, including the respect for international law, and are able and willing to contribute to CSDP missions and operations.

There will also be a focus on capacity building for security and development in partner nations including for the prevention and management of crises on their own and developing civilian capabilities and enhancing the responsiveness of civilian crisis management, including the possible creation of a core responsiveness capacity;

A renewed effort will be made to reinforce military rapid response, including EU battlegroups.

And in a tacit endorsement of a multi-speed Europe, EU members are working on an inclusive “permanent structured cooperation” (PESCO), composed of EU member states which are willing and able to collaborate further in the area of security and defence. More cooperation with Nato will take place, including in counterterrorism.

The agenda is undoubtedly modest by world standards. The EU defence plans certainly pale in comparison to the military swagger of the US, China and Russia.

But it would be a mistake to discount European ambitions. And if it can mix and match its soft and hard power by combining aid, trade, diplomacy with some military muscle, the EU could become a smart power which is valued at home and abroad.

—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2017