Afghanistan pullout sparks EU calls for more military might

Paolo Gentiloni, the EU’s commissioner for economics and taxation, has spoken to CNBC about a need for the bloc to develop on the geopolitical stage as the U.S. and other Western allies take a step back.

“We are an economic superpower but we cannot be completely absent in the geopolitical role,” he told CNBC’s Steve Sedgwick at the European House Ambrosetti Forum on Saturday.

Gentiloni namechecked what he called a “terrible” conclusion to the war in Afghanistan in recent weeks as one example of the U.S. and others reducing their commitments on the global stage. His comments add another voice to the argument that the EU should develop a common defense policy, which many see as a forerunner to a full EU army.

“I think we can coexist very well,” Gentiloni said when asked whether this would be a threat to NATO, whose members include some EU nations.

Undermining NATO is seen as one key reason why the EU has not established its own army, as well as the different levels of defense spending within the bloc. Critics are also wary of further integration within the EU.

“NATO was born and shaped mainly to deter Russia’s presence in Europe, these roles remain absolutely crucial. And I am personally also a strong supporter of NATO,” Gentiloni said.

“What I’m saying is that if the European Union role is growing, if we will have a good economic recovery, if we are trying to be on the lead on the climate transition, and many other aspects of our ambition, we cannot be completely irrelevant and silent on these geopolitical dynamics.”

French Special Forces Soldiers stand guard near a military plane at airport in Kabul on August 17, 2021, as they arrive to evacuate French and Afghan nationals after the Taliban’s stunning military takeover of Afghanistan.

STR | AFP | Getty Images

EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, went one step further this week, telling reporters in Slovenia that the the bloc should create a “first entry force” of 5,000 troops to reduce its dependence on the U.S.

Two EU battlegroups of 1,500 troops were established back in 2007, but they have never been deployed.

“Sometimes there are events that catalyze history, that create a breakthrough, and I think that Afghanistan is one of these cases,” Borrell said, according to Reuters.

Chinese antagonism

When asked about Chinese antagonism and whether the EU would look to face down the Asian superpower as one bloc in the future, Gentiloni said that this could ultimately benefit the U.S.

“There is an economic cooperation [with China], trade cooperation, but we are different systems. It is inevitable that the model of a different capitalism, capitalism that is not connected with democracy, with liberty, is an alternative to the European model,” he said.

“And so forcefully we will be partners with [the] U.S. in this kind of confrontation, but [it’s] also in the U.S. interest if this European partner is also geopolitically stronger and [has] more influence … We always describe Europe as a quiet superpower, Venus and Mars. OK, [the] time is now to give also Venus some geopolitical power.”

Speaking at the same event, France’s Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire agreed that this development of a common defense policy could constitute a new position for Europe.

“There is a need for a new geopolitical approach for Europe,” Le Maire told CNBC at a press conference.

He added that the EU now needs to become a third geopolitical superpower alongside China and the United States.

“This is a my deepest political conviction … let’s open our eyes, we are facing political threats,” he said.

“We cannot rely any more only on the protection of the United States. This is obvious, so we need to be our own protection.”

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