Elisabeth BrawSenior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute
Of course Europe is serious about defense. Or rather, a range of European countries are serious about defense. I can think of no country more committed to its territorial integrity than Finland. Italy patrols its mountains and its shores—and large parts of the Mediterranean, for the benefit not just Italy itself but the EU, as well. The UK punches far above its weight when it comes to defense and has, of course, taken a lead role in helping Ukraine be as well set up as it possibly can against Russia. And in the non-kinetic realm, Sweden is taking the lead in the extremely important defense against foreign influence campaigns.
The problem is, of course, that these are disparate efforts. But the problem surrounding “European defense” is also that expectations are constantly set far too high—by politicians and analysts. It’s (still) illusory to think that we would be able to pool these capabilities in a way that somehow complements NATO. The more we talk about “European defense” the more we set our often impressive national efforts up to look like a failure.
Andrea ChristouPhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh
If there was ever a reason for Europe to improve its defense, this is it. The Russia-Ukraine war at Europe’s doorstep is only the latest addition to the mix of challenges that the EU must deal with externally. Time after time, the outstanding question is whether EU member states will present a united front and act coherently and effectively in the face of these challenges. However, strengthening the EU’s defense policy and defense industries has seldom been part of member states’ strategic thinking. Could this time be any different?
One would assume that the geographical proximity of the war in Ukraine would influence the member states’ threat perception and encourage them to pursue a more unified defense policy. However, guided by their own historical and geopolitical grievances, member states continue to diverge on the priorities of EU security and defense. When it comes to Russia, we are also once again reminded of the so-called trojan horses of EU foreign policy.
Member states are thus reluctant to contribute efforts to strengthen EU defense policy. They are nonetheless eager for NATO to take the wheel for Europe’s defense. Judging by Sweden and Finland’s bid for NATO membership, Europe is serious about defense, just not via the EU.
Raluca CsernatoniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
The return of war in Europe has certainly been a wake-up call for many EU member states in terms of their defense budgets, capability development, joint procurement, but also the re-prioritization of NATO’s collective defense posture.
The EU has taken important steps, such as delivering lethal equipment via the European Peace Facility. At the Versailles summit, EU leaders agreed not only to “invest more” in defense, but also to invest “better” and more effectively. The European Commission, building on existing EU tools such as the European Defence Fund, has proposed concrete measures to reduce industrial fragmentation and support defense innovation via a new €2 billion ($2.1 billion) EU Defence Innovation Scheme. An extra €500 million ($533 million) of the EU budget has been tabled to boost collaborative defense procurement and address urgent capability gaps.
But is this new defense momentum a paradigmatic shift for European defense or just a temporary reshuffling of priorities in response to the sense of urgency brought about by Russia’s war in Ukraine?
The swift and implementation of recent measures and pledges is key. But most importantly, European political alignment on the war in Ukraine is direly needed now to achieve the so-called quantum leap toward greater unity on European defense in the future. This involves unity especially between France and Germany on the one hand, and the Nordic and Eastern European flanks on the other hand. This will be essential in mitigatin growing disagreements, frustration, and distrust among EU member states in the long run.
Daniel FiottSecurity and Defence Editor at the EU Institute for Security Studies (EUISS)
Let me take the easy way out—yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the European Council is clearly driving forward ambitious steps in EU defense. Look, for example, at how EU leaders have tasked the European Commission to come up with policy solutions for civil-military innovation, critical technologies, and, more recently after the Versailles summit, joint defense procurement and investment gaps.
These leaders recently endorsed an ambitious Strategic Compass for defense, too, and the union is even helping to deliver weapons to the Ukrainian armed forces. Clearly, European leaders understand—however long overdue—that more defense spending and capabilities are required if Europe is to be truly serious about its defense.
However, really ambitious steps forward in EU defense are hampered by disagreement between states on how best to invest in it. Some see a future of large-scale collective investments in defense on a par with the union’s game-changing COVID-19 recovery plans, whereas others insist that defense spending should be a national affair only. The truth is that the EU and European NATO desperately need to ramp up production of capabilities and no single government can cope with this alone. It is time to think big.
Justyna GotkowskaCoordinator of the Regional Security Program at the Center for Eastern Studies, Warsaw
The EU should first of all strengthen its role as a security actor in non-defense related areas where it can play a substantial role that is accepted among all of the member states.
The union can use its economic power toward adversaries by imposing sanctions and shaping economic relations. It can play a supportive role in building resilience in the member states in areas such as critical infrastructure. It can also use, to a greater extent, its transformative power through enlargement and cooperation policy in the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries.
In the wider neighborhood, the EU can play a bigger role in crisis management by adopting a wide political, military, and civilian approach. There is no will among the member states for the union to become a defense alliance. This role is reserved to NATO, but the EU can play a supportive role here.
The bloc should expand its focus from enabling European defense industry integration to encompass also support for NATO’s collective defense efforts. This could be done by increasing the EU’s financial and administrative engagement in enhancing military mobility, developing military infrastructure, prepositioning of military equipment, and purchasing needed capabilities, among other actions.
Calle HåkanssonAssociate fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs
We are maybe seeing the start of it, however there is still a long way to go. The European Commission recently presented a gloomy but frank assessment of the lack of European defense capabilities and investments. Hence, Europe must focus on more collaborative actions in defense and joint procurement to overcome the problems of the past. Russia’s war in Ukraine implies, as stated by the leaders in the European Council, a “tectonic shift in European history” and Europe now needs to take a quantum leap (for real this time) in defense. To invest and procure together is the way forward for European countries.
The adoption of the German military investment fund could likewise be another milestone in pushing forward the work on European defense. Moreover, with Sweden and Finland in the process of joining NATO and Denmark likely to abolish its defense opt-out from the EU we hopefully can see even closer alignment and collaboration between the two center pillars of European security and defense. Likewise, NATO’s new Strategic Concept and the June summit in Madrid could also create an impetus for strengthening EU-NATO relations.
Alena KudzkoDirector of the GLOBSEC Policy Institute
A number of initiatives have been launched as governments across Europe increase their defense spending: the establishment of Germany’s military fund, adoption of the EU Strategic Compass, development of proposals for a Defense Joint Procurement Task Force and financial incentives to support joint acquisition. Had these actions been taken a year ago, they would have been touted as a major leap forward. But the situation has changed dramatically—Europe’s marks on defense cannot be measured against its former self but rather the challenge posed by its adversaries.
Current commitments will not deliver the transformation needed to enable Europe to defend itself and act independently. They also fall short in their timeliness. As Central Europeans observe Russia attempt to annihilate a neighboring country, they legitimately worry that they may not be afforded the luxury to wait decades for Europe to become a defense actor.
France’s flat-footed insistence on outreach to Russia only further raises suspicion among Central Europeans about the reliability of EU partners—even if these are spurious concerns. And Germany’s patchy progress on defense and perceived flipflopping on its promises is hardly helping Europe’s case. Central and Eastern Europe, consequently, will continue to stress the importance of NATO.
But even Central Europeans realize that the continent may be on borrowed time as the United States’ attention shifts to other priorities. It is, therefore, paramount that Europe finds more political courage to further boost and sustain defense spending to compensate for decades of underinvestment. Defense would ideally be exempted from budgetary rules. And rather than merely replenishing military stocks depleted by transfers to Ukraine, Europe should try harder to jointly innovate, coordinate, and invest.
Julian Lindley-FrenchChairman of The Alphen Group
No. Europeans are defense DIMBYs—defend me but not in my back yard—that is, they are very serious about being defended, just not by themselves. Of course, the nearer one is to danger the more one is prepared to invest in defense. And for all the nonsense about modest defense increases since 2014, the €200 billion ($214 billion) or so Europeans spend on defense is mainly spent badly, largely by Britain, France, and Germany and is being eaten up by inflation.
As for leadership? The“Big Three”—France, Germany, and Italy—really do not like each other very much and none of them feel threatened. In spite of the war in Ukraine, indebted Europeans routinely confuse politics with strategy and defense value with defense cost.
European politicians still prefer to invest in health and social security rather than national security, particularly in the post-COVID economic abyss. It is still what gets politicians elected.
Proof of seriousness? Every European government agrees to spend 3 percent GDP minimum per annum on defense, 40 percent on new equipment, collaborative defense research and development is increased so that each project serves agreed NATO and EU force goals. And European armed forces have enough ammunition to get them beyond the next morning in a fight.
Alexander MattelaerProfessor of international security and Vice Dean for Research at the VUB Brussels School of Governance
Slowly but surely Europeans are getting serious about defense. Military expenditure is trending upward, readiness is being rebuilt, and collective defense has again become the focal point of defense staffs in European capitals. This has as much to do with changing threat perceptions following Russia’s resort to force to upend the European security architecture as with the realization that the transatlantic relationship needs fundamental repair after the U.S. presidency of Donald Trump.
In the process, Europeans are rediscovering the importance of NATO as the organization of choice for organizing their collective defense. The EU’s defense ambitions remain welded to the paradigm of crisis management and reducing the fragmentation of defense industrial markets. The tension underlying this institutional dynamic has fundamentally to do with the question of whether the authority to wield force must remain with national governments or be transferred to a competent supranational authority. The NATO membership bids submitted by Finland and Sweden speak volumes in this regard.
The comeback of nuclear deterrence and the procurement policy of the German Bundeswehr constitute the two key variables determining the future. Nuclear sharing remains at the foundation of NATO’s collective defense. Similarly, defense industrial markets will follow the procurement preferences of the government with the deepest pockets: Berlin.
Christian MöllingResearch director of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)
EU and Europe in defense—an old story of two ends that don’t really meet. The new twist is that the center of gravity on defense proper is shifting away from a disinterested France and an anxious Germany to the North and the East, and from EU to NATO as the organization that involves the United States.
Whatever Brussels does, it needs the ownership of the governments to transfer its offers in terms of institution and money into defense output. But trust you cannot buy with money or procedures in times of a war—as the one that takes place on the doorsteps of Poland, the Baltics, Finland, Sweden, and others.
The good news is that NATO needs the EU to make headway on cooperation because, beyond the hectic activism of wartimes, the ravages of time are eating away at defense budgets faster than they can be increased nationally. With Sweden and Finland, the number of countries that are members of both the EU and NATO increases to twenty-three. The two Nordic countries also bring a serious interest in defense output. This can help to bang the heads of EU and NATO but also of blocking states in order to enable a proper defense of Europe with EU and NATO at the service of nations, helping to strive for the same capabilities and offer a way to cooperate to acquire these.
Sten RynningProfessor at the Faculty of Business and Social Sciences at University of Southern Denmark
Having spent the better part of three decades thinking about a world beyond defense, Europe is today in a bad situation. It has neither the military muscle nor political leadership to confront Russia’s aggression. Had it not been for the United States, Ukraine would have been at the mercy of the war Russia has imposed on it.
Europe once signed up to a doctrine whereby the road to détente started with effective defense—NATO’s 1967 Harmel Report. Today, this tried-and-tested doctrine is at risk of being short-circuited as several European countries de facto are ready to amputate Ukraine in order to accommodate Russian sensibilities.
Their wager is that the war on Ukraine that Russia started in 2014 and rebooted in 2022 can now be stopped by dialogue. It is a strategy reflective of limited means, political timidity, and self-deterrence. If Europe was serious about defense, it would seek to impose military costs on Russia so severe that the punishment of aggression is obvious for everyone to see. Future debates about Europe’s strategic relevance must begin here and with the Harmel Doctrine that has served Europe and the transatlantic community so well.
Ester SabatinoResearch analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)
2022 was declared the “year of European defense.” EU history is dotted with declarations on defense that were not followed by the necessary support to fully translate them into reality. Examples include the fragmented EU defense market, the interoperability level of European armed forces, or the never-deployed EU battlegroups.
What is different this time is a renewed acknowledgement and recognition of the urgent necessity to jointly invest and do more in defense. This was made clearer by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which trigged an additional €200 billion ($214 billion) national funding.
The European Defence Agency’s (EDA) Capability Development Plan (CDP), the Coordinated Annual Review of Defence (CARD), Permanent Structure Cooperation (PESCO), the European Defence Fund (EDF), the European Peace Facility (EPF), the Strategic Compass, the EDA’s Hub for EU defense innovation, as well as the Commission’s relatively new role in defense and its Contribution to European Defence and Joint Communication are just few of the initiatives and documents guiding EU defense cooperation.
All these need to be complemented with a clearer definition of roles, partnerships and requirements, improved skills, synergies, supply chains, and industrial capacity. Nonetheless, EU willingness to “resolutely implement” the Compass is a positive sign to determine the EU seriousness about defense—it helps strengthen a developing culture of cooperation in Europe, the lack of which has prevented the EU from being serious about defense thus far.
Adája StoetmanResearch fellow at the Clingendael Institute’s Security Unit
Being serious about defense requires being serious about defense investments. The saying goes “never waste a good crisis” and European countries have done this saying justice. A newfound sense of urgency due to the war in Ukraine has led European countries, such as the Netherlands and Germany, to significantly increase their defense expenditures and invest in (new) defense capabilities.
The result is that many European countries will reach, much sooner than expected at the beginning of the year, the NATO target agreed upon in 2014, namely that 2 percent of GDP should be spend on defense. In that sense, the irony is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has accomplished what various U.S. presidents have long tried to achieve: increasing European defense expenditure.
But it is not only about spending more money. It is also about spending more together, in a smarter and more efficient way. Europe’s defense industry is woefully fragmented due to prevailing national interests. Enhanced coordination and a degree of specialization in defense capabilities would generate industrial consolidation, cost savings, and increased interoperability. If Europe wants to be serious about defense, it should get serious about overcoming fragmentation and ensure countries’ increased defense expenditures lead to serious enhancement of defense capabilities.
Ben TonraProfessor of International Relations at University College Dublin
There is a Europe that is serious about defense, but lots of Europe that isn’t. . . yet. The assumptions that have guided European security for the last thirty years have been shattered. Many European states face new existential threats, and several have overturned or reversed decades—even centuries—of established defense policies. For others, while the public narratives may have shifted, the substance of their defense posture remains stuck. The legacy of decades of inertia, self-deception, and willing dependence weigh heavily.
There persists, too, genuine differences over strategic doctrine, security culture and geostrategic threat perception.
With crisis, however, comes opportunity. NATO and the EU—separately and in tandem—have an opportunity to build a defense community that can deliver security at home and contribute more to regional and global security, broadly defined. Neither organisation has a monopoly of wisdom or capacity, each has its own strengths. With reinforced and increasingly overlapping membership, and with each working to its own strength, they can together deliver upon a shared security and defense agenda. Europe’s obligation is to reinforce the North Atlantic Alliance by strengthening the EU’s contribution to collective defense and thereby to create a stronger transatlantic partnership.
This blog is part of the Transatlantic Relations in Review series. Carnegie Europe is grateful to the U.S. Mission to the EU for its support.