The European Union has unveiled new plans to develop its own defence capabilities in a bid to ensure it has more freedom to act in future crises.
The announcement came on the back of the swift collapse of the Afghan army and the chaotic US-led evacuation through Kabul airport last month.
More than 100,000 people were evacuated in the frenzied final days of the US airlift after US president Joe Biden said American troops would leave, forcing the hands of EU countries incapable of facing the Taliban alone.
Many thousands of Afghans remain, desperate to escape the uncertainty of Taliban rule.
The scenes of chaos included Afghans plunging to their deaths from the sides of military aircraft on take-off and a suicide bombing that killed 169 Afghans and 13 US personnel and encapsulated the end of a two-decade war led by Washington with financial, political and security support from European allies.
In a self-styled State of the European Union address, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the failure of the government and security forces in Kabul and their fall to Taliban insurgents in a matter of days raised troubling questions for the 27-nation bloc, but also for Nato.
“Witnessing events unfold in Afghanistan was profoundly painful for all the families of fallen servicemen and servicewomen,” Ms von der Leyen said.
“To make sure that their service will never be in vain, we have to reflect on how this mission could end so abruptly.”
“There are deeply troubling questions that allies will have to tackle within Nato,” the former German defence minister told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.
But she conceded that co-operation with Nato, where the US was by far the most powerful and influential member, must also remain a priority.
Ms von der Leyen said “Europe can, and clearly should, be able and willing to do more on its own”, and she insisted that “it is time for Europe to step up to the next level”.
Earlier this month, EU ministers debated creating a standby EU force of around 5,000 troops to deploy in crises like the one at Kabul airport.
The plan faces opposition from some of the 22 EU countries that are also members of Nato, notably countries bordering Russia comforted by US security assurances.
The EU does have a system of battlegroups to deploy to hotspots but they have never been used.
“What has held us back until now is not just a shortfall of capacity – it is the lack of political will,” Ms von der Leyen said.
“If we develop this political will, there is a lot that we can do at EU level.”
She said the EU must lay the foundations for better collective decision-making and intelligence-sharing, improve the interoperability of the 27 member countries’ military equipment, and invest in common projects like fighter jets, drones and cyber capacities.
The EU’s chief executive proposed a waiver on value added tax for defence equipment developed and produced in Europe, which could help wean the bloc off its dependence on US technology.
Ms Von der Leyen said that she and French president Emmanuel Macron, who has long-called for more EU defence autonomy, notably during the turmoil of the Trump administration, would convene a summit on European defence when France took over the bloc’s rotating presidency in the first half of 2022.