‘Whatever form a new war may take, whatever part is taken in it by aviation, by gas, by the different destructive processes of modern warfare, there is one imperious necessity, and that is to prevent the violation of our territory by enemy armies. We all know the cost of invasion, with its sad procession of material ruin and moral desolation’.
In an age where we watch on the violation of Ukraine, wait to be annihilated by AI powered robots or sit patiently for the South China Sea war to kick off, the above quote strikes a chord. It comes from a speech in January 1930 by André Maginot, then French Minister for War, who at this stage had been lobbying actively for the barrier that bore his name.
Maginot had fought in the first world war (effectively losing a knee), where heavily fortified structures and defensive lines had slowed the Germans, and the conception of the Maginot line relied largely on history – in the previous thousand years the Germans has predictably charged across the space that the line occupied. In May 1940 Rommel sped through Belgium and the Netherlands, around the Maginot line, and by June German troops were on the outskirts of Paris.
Today, the Maginot line might be the large navies of China and the US, or the web of artificial island bases that China has constructed. What is sure is that we are now in a multi-threat age (of total war) where single use Maginot lines can be rendered useless by multi-domain attacks.
One important and complex element here is that Europe is beginning to build its defences for the consequences of a multi-polar world. Last week it announced the skeleton of its EU Economic Security Strategy, whose aim is to protect key EU technologies, identify and pre-empt economic security threats to cyber, intellectual property, and economic coercion against Europe. The framework is designed to allow states to ‘risk manage’ their diverse exposures to these risks, with a steer from the EU. In effect the initiative builds on a number of more specific Acts – such as the EU Chips Act and 5G Security framework.
In practice the initiative has been motivated by cyber warfare from Russia, the implications of the invasion of Ukraine (and financial flows in and out of Europe to Russia) in addition to the threats to EU intellectual property from foreign states (namely China). We can now expect to see more intensive screening of the export of key technologies from Europe, financial inflows and of inward investment. Watch out next week for the announced risk framework to be debated at an EU leader’s summit on 29/30th June.
The initial implementation of the framework will be interesting, and my sense is that it will initially be used to bring expertise from ‘strong’ states, through the EU, to shore up weak points – from Chinese data centres (i.e. TikTok) in Ireland to foreign ownership of EU infrastructure to the allocation of research funding, to financial flows through Austria’s trust system.
As readers will know I am inordinately focused on the Irish case, and it is a country with multiple ‘Maginot weak points’. The changing world order has uncovered multiple vulnerabilities in Ireland’s security framework – the susceptibility of large technology facilities to espionage, unguarded trans-Atlantic cable lines and a wide-open airspace to name a few. There is now a public consultation process on security ongoing in Ireland, and a suspicion that its defensive frailties are already being filled by NATO countries.
Dutch to lead
In the EU, one practical implication of the new economic security framework will be the extent to which practices by ‘strong’ states (for example the Netherlands has been very aggressive on protecting the semiconductors industry and on screening Chinese students) will be carried across to other countries, and to the extent that the ‘weakest link’ states have their security and economic infrastructure fortified.
What is not yet absolutely clear (even though institutions like the WTO are mentioned in the announcement) is the extent to which the EU will work with international partners like the US in terms of collaborating more closely on disrupting questionable financial flows for instance. This has been an area of technical weakness across the EU and embarrassingly many of flows of ‘bad money’ in and around the EU have been detected by the US.
In typical European style, this initiative is just a start. It is porous and easily circumnavigated, to stick with the Maginot analogy, but in the longer term points to even greater coordination across states, greater scrutiny of investment flows and I hope, greater collaboration across countries.