The Spectator

Why won’t Europe defend its own interests?

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The US and Britain have joined forces to strike Houthi rebels who have been attacking commercial shipping in the Red Sea. But where is the rest of Europe when it comes to defending its own interests? The Netherlands has provided some logistic support – along with Australia, Bahrain and Canada – but European countries have otherwise opted out of the operation, just as they have so many times before.

The attacks on shipping cannot be allowed to persist, and the operation to prevent them must continue

This response to the Houthi attacks is no military adventure. It does not compare with the invasion of Iraq 21 years ago, which raised legitimate questions about the legality and wisdom of trying to invade, seize and rebuild a country. The operation in the Red Sea is a straightforward defence against illegal attacks on civilian ships. Those attacks are not just threatening the lives of sailors; they are blocking the most direct route for goods being transported to Europe from Asia and the Gulf. Europe has already suffered an energy crunch following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine; now the supply of replacement fuel is under threat. Among the many ships which have been forced to divert from the Red Sea and Suez canal and take ten days longer going around the Cape of Good Hope are ships carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar to Europe. As the shipping giant Maersk has warned, a protracted blockage of the Red Sea will add substantially to the cost of shipping and thwart global economic recovery.

A blockage of the Suez canal is Europe’s problem more than it is America’s, yet the European response has been feeble. Emmanuel Macron said he decided not to join in the military strikes because he doesn’t want France to get involved in an escalation of tensions in the Middle East – the Houthis have made it clear that they are trying to retaliate against Israel’s military operation. Macron refused even to sign a declaration of support, along with Italy and Spain.

Olaf Scholz, who did sign, seems to want to get involved but only as part of an EU-backed operation, any chance of which has so far been scuppered by Macron. So much for the argument trotted out so many times during the Brexit debate: that membership of the EU allows states to punch well above their weight on international affairs. The reluctance of EU states to assert themselves militarily without unanimous agreement is becoming a serious weakness.

We do not wish to get sucked into a wider Middle Eastern conflict either, which is why the Prime Minister was right to make it clear this week that Britain is not trying to impose its will on Yemen. Regime change is not on the agenda, nor is any kind of world-policeman role within the territory of Yemen. But the attacks on shipping cannot be allowed to persist, and the operation to prevent them must continue until the Houthis voluntarily end their attacks or their ability to wage them is thoroughly degraded.

It would help if other European countries were to join in rather than try to hide behind US military might. The reluctance to become involved is reminiscent of the situation two years ago when the US and Britain quickly stepped up to supply weaponry and other tactical support to Ukraine, while other European countries initially prevaricated. Had it not been for our timely response, Ukraine could have fallen very quickly and Putin would have emerged emboldened, ready to extend his dream of a revived Russian empire.

For far too long, Europe has been trying to shelter beneath America’s defence umbrella. Donald Trump won no prizes for diplomacy when he tweeted, during the 2018 Nato summit, ‘The US pays tens of Billions of Dollars too much to subsidise Europe, and loses Big on trade’, but he was essentially correct: the US is getting a bad deal out of defending Europe because too few European countries are taking their own responsibilities seriously. Nato has set a clear target that member states should spend at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence. Yet pitifully few member states meet this obligation.

Germany has vowed to change its ways but, as Lisa Haseldine observes in her article, its efforts so far are unconvincing and Lithuania is seriously considering whether Poland might not be a better defence partner. If Germany does deploy to Lithuania, it is far from clear whether it would be able to retain the capacity to defend itself. This is a ludicrous situation and it should not take Trump to point it out. Eventually there may come a time when the US has altogether had enough of paying to defend Europe and its interests, at which point European countries will be horribly exposed.

It isn’t just that extra firepower would be welcome against the Houthis. The greater the number of countries prepared to stand up against illegal attacks on civilians and commercial interests, the more political legitimacy the operation will seem to possess.

A better way of handling the situation is needed. Shying away from defending shipping will not ease tensions in the Middle East; it will merely encourage Europe’s enemies to take advantage of its weakness.