Berlin (CNSNews.com) – The Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan resulting from the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces shows the need for a “European defense union,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a state of the union address on Wednesday.
“Witnessing events unfold in Afghanistan was profoundly painful for all the families of fallen servicemen and servicewomen,” she said. “To make sure that their service will never be in vain, we have to reflect on how this mission could end so abruptly.”
Von der Leyen said that the E.U. would work with NATO, but that was only “part of the equation”
“Europe can – and clearly should – be able and willing to do more on its own,” she said. “There will be missions where NATO or the U.N. will not be present, but where the E.U. should be. What we need is a European defense union.”
“You can have the most advanced forces in the world – but if you are never prepared to use them of what use are they?” asked von der Leyen, formerly Germany’s defense minister.
“What has held us back until now is not just a shortfall of capacity – it is the lack of political will,” she said. “And if we develop this political will, there is a lot that we can do at EU level.”
European defense initiatives have been discussed for decades, going back to a Franco-German “European Corps” proposal in 1991, without getting much traction. Britain – now no longer a member – often led opposition, in favor of depending on NATO. The E.U. established a system of “battlegroups” in 2015, but to date they’ve never been used.
As the E.U. ponders how to respond to developments in Afghanistan, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said if it “to have any chance of influencing events, we have no other option but to engage with the Taliban.”
“Engagement does not mean recognition,” he stressed. “No, engaging means talking, discussing and agreeing – when possible.”
E.U. foreign affairs ministers agreed at a September 3 that any engagement would depend on the Taliban meeting five benchmarks including “the establishment of an inclusive and representative transitional government” and respecting “women’s rights.”
However, the recently announced “interim” government included no non-Taliban members, no women, and mostly comprised ethnic Pashtuns. It also includes U.N.-sanctioned terrorists.
Borrell said that in order to implement those benchmarks, the E.U. was considering a diplomatic presence in Kabul.
“The embassies of the member-states have been closed and they are not going to reopen, but we still have a delegation that can be – since it is not an embassy, because we are not a state – used as an antenna, if the security conditions are met, in order to discuss with the government in a closer way than through videoconferences or through messages.”
The European Parliament in a motion for a resolution on Tuesday acknowledged that engagement with the Taliban regime was necessary for “logistical, operational and humanitarian matters, in order to provide humanitarian assistance to civilians in need and safe passage for foreign nationals and Afghans seeking to leave the country.”
The resolution stressed, however, that “these contacts should remain strictly limited to the relevant purposes at this stage,” to “avoid any impression of a possible recognition of the Taliban.”
Michael Gahler, a German lawmaker who is vice chairman of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, acknowledged that there was no other option but to engage with Taliban leaders, but also called for improving E.U. defense.
“The rapid takeover of power by the Taliban was a severe setback for the long efforts of the Western community in Afghanistan,” he said during a parliamentary sitting in Strasbourg on Tuesday.
“Nevertheless, we cannot close ourselves off from the new reality in Afghanistan and will engage in a pragmatic and limited dialogue with the de facto regime for the departure of Europeans, local workers and particularly vulnerable groups of people who have not yet been brought out of the country,” he said.
Gahler agreed that the rapid collapse in Afghanistan demonstrated the need for a European defense union.
“The dramatic events in Kabul show us Europeans once again that, despite our increased efforts in recent years towards a European defense union, we do not have the necessary instruments to meet the international challenges of the 21st century,” he said.
“Afghanistan should be a renewed wake-up call to us that we as the E.U. must jointly advance more ambitiously in the area of military capabilities, on the one hand to be able to act independently and on the other hand to be an attractive, rather than just helpless partner, to the U.S.”
Von der Leyen said Wednesday she will convene a summit on European defense with French President Emmanuel Macron, who has long been pushing for some form of E.U. defense union.
France will take over the six-month rotating presidency of the bloc from January 2022, and Macron is expected to continue to push for a unified defense policy.