Toward the end of 2015, a few defense experts raised their eyebrows at a Credit Suisse report on the future of globalization. This wide-ranging assessment contained a short analysis of global military power, ranking the top 20 countries in the world. Weighing six elements of conventional warfare, the Credit Suisse analysts considered Poland a stronger military power than Germany, and Italy came ahead of the United Kingdom.
Notwithstanding those conclusions, much of the current discussion about European defense—whether through NATO, the EU, or other formats—revolves around the positions of the three leading European military spenders: France, Germany, and the UK. However, those other two major European powers, Italy and Poland, deserve more attention. They are both frontline states for EU and NATO security, and they both personify the two main operational priorities for European military cooperation: defending NATO territory in Eastern Europe, and intervening to stabilize conflict-racked countries to the EU’s South.
Italy has received 75 percent of migrant and refugee flows across the Mediterranean into the EU this year—over 110,000 people, according to the International Organization for Migration. Elisabeth Braw from the Atlantic Council notes that “between January and June of this year, Italy’s coast guard rescued 21,540 migrants from 188 vessels, while the Italian navy brought 3,344 migrants to safety and its financial police, the Guardia di Finanza, saved nearly 400.”
Poland, meanwhile, worries greatly about the military threat from Russia following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent warfighting in eastern Ukraine. A year ago, Russia deployed Iskander-M ballistic missiles (nuclear-capable rockets with a range up to 500 kilometers) to Kaliningrad, its Baltic exclave situated between Poland and Lithuania. Part of the joint Russia-Belarussian Zapad military exercise in September took place in Kaliningrad.
Understandably, a focus on either defense or intervention drives Polish and Italian defense policies—in part because with relatively limited resources, they must prioritize. To compare, NATO estimates that the UK will spend $55 billion, France $44 billion, and Germany $43 billion on defense this year. In contrast, Italy will spend $22.5 billion and Poland $10 billion.
Even though Italian defense spending is equivalent to only 1.1 per cent of its GDP, just over half of NATO’s much-trumpeted headline goal, Italy is one of Europe’s biggest contributors to international operations. The Italian Institute of International Affairs says that Italy sent over 6,000 armed forces personnel to international missions during 2016. This is almost double Germany’s number, which deployed roughly 3,300 during 2016, according to the German defense ombudsman.
The bulk of those Italian soldiers operated in Africa and the Middle East. This reflects the priorities set out in Italy’s 2015 defense white paper, which highlighted the Euro-Mediterranean region as Italy’s primary geostrategic focus. Turmoil in Libya, for example, has greatly contributed to the large numbers of migrants being smuggled across Mediterranean waters into Italy. Interestingly, the white paper said that Italy not only intended to contribute to international coalitions (whether NATO, UN, or EU) in the Euro-Mediterranean space, but would also be prepared to lead military interventions across the region.
As a percentage of GDP, Poland spends almost double that of Italy on defense. Moreover, President Andrzej Duda signed a law on October 23 committing Poland to spend an impressive 2.5 percent of GDP on defense by 2030. The same bill also includes a plan to increase Polish armed forces from the current 100,000 personnel to 200,000. Some 50,000 of those will belong to a new voluntary “Territorial Defense Force.”
The 2017 Polish Defense Concept, a strategic review published in May, explains the reason for these impressive budgetary and personnel increases: “The number one priority was the necessity of adequately preparing Poland to defend its own territory.” Referring to the new defense law, Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz rather ambitiously stated, “The Polish army will within ten years gain the capability of stopping every opponent.”
Both Poland and Italy have set out robust military intentions, whether to defend national territory or to contribute to international interventions. Even so, both want help from their allies, whether to counter Russian missiles or to cope with cross-Mediterranean migration.
On top of current EU efforts, such as naval operations, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni asked other EU governments to help more with stemming migrant flows at a summit in Brussels on October 19-20, including sending a mission to police Niger’s border with Libya. The Polish government has long called for stronger NATO defenses; after U.S. President Donald Trump’s endorsement of the alliance’s mutual defense commitment in Warsaw on July 6, they were “in seventh heaven.”
Polish enthusiasm for military cooperation through NATO does not currently translate into strong support for complementary efforts through the EU. This appears to be a binary choice for some in Warsaw. Andrzej Talaga from the Warsaw Enterprise Institute, for example, described French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent proposals for a stronger EU military intervention capacity as “suicidal” for Poland because they would weaken NATO’s collective defenses.
Italy is also firmly committed to NATO but, in contrast to Poland, sees no contradiction with wholeheartedly supporting deeper EU military cooperation. For example, Rome proposed that Europeans create a multinational military force a year before Macron suggested the same in his Sorbonne speech on September 26.
Italy and Poland represent the two sides of Europe’s defense coin. However, European military cooperation, whether through NATO or the EU, cannot fully contribute to European security until EU governments realize that they need to be collectively able to both defend their territories and intervene abroad.
Galileo (an Italian) proved the revolutionary theory of Copernicus (a Pole) that the sun, rather than the earth, was at the center of the universe. If Italy and Poland developed a shared strategic consensus and jointly acted accordingly, it would be a revolution for European defense.
Daniel Keohane is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zürich.