That European governments need to cooperate on defense matters should be obvious. European nations face an unprecedented confluence of security crises, ranging from an unpredictable Russia to conflicts across the Middle East, which are generating internal security tests such as terrorist attacks and refugee flows. The United States is ambiguous about putting out all of Europe’s fires and expects allies to take on more of the military burden. And no European country can cope alone.
Aside from their complexity, one key new dimension of these security challenges is that Europeans now have to simultaneously defend their territories and manage external crises. Another important aspect is that the lines between internal and external security are increasingly blurred.
Against this backdrop, at a summit in June 2016 the EU is expected to adopt a new global strategy, which will set out priorities and guidelines for EU foreign, security, and defense policies. On July 8–9, NATO will hold a summit in Warsaw, where members will discuss the alliance’s role in coping with Russian aggression and Middle Eastern disorder.
These institutional processes are important, but European defense cooperation is being pushed more by the coming together of national priorities than by the efforts of the EU and NATO. European defense cooperation will continue, but it is mainly bottom up—driven by national governments—not top down, meaning directed and organized by the institutions in Brussels.
For example, although the previous decline in European defense spending has stopped, national budgets have fallen by around 15 percent since 2008. Institutional orthodoxy holds that reduced national budgets, especially for military equipment, should spur more cross-border collaboration. In fact, the opposite has been true. Between 2006 and 2011, EU governments spent around 20 percent of their equipment budgets on pan-European collaboration each year. By 2013, this figure had fallen below 16 percent, according to the European Defense Agency.
Similarly, European governments have become less willing to send soldiers abroad for peacekeeping operations and more selective about which missions they participate in. All the European members of NATO contributed to the alliance’s operations in Afghanistan during the 2000s, but less than half took part in NATO’s 2011 military intervention in Libya. The EU has deployed over 30 peace operations since 2003, but 24 of these were initiated before 2009, and the pace and size of new missions has dropped considerably since then.
It is true that NATO’s central role in European territorial defense has been reinvigorated since 2014 by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Conventional deterrence is back in Europe as a core task for European governments. But so far, even these efforts have remained relatively modest. With a strength of only 5,000, the multinational Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, the headline NATO formation for responding to Russian revisionism in Eastern Europe, prompts questions about the unit’s usefulness in some military scenarios. According to one recent war-gaming study, the longest it would take Russian military forces to reach the Estonian and Latvian capitals of Tallinn and Riga is sixty hours.
However, even if the EU and NATO are struggling to encourage much deeper collaboration among their members, it would be wrong to think that there is no progress on European defense cooperation. There are nearly 400 ongoing military cooperation projects in Europe. These include initiatives such the European Air Transport Command in the Netherlands, which manages the missions of almost 200 tanker and transport aircraft from seven countries, and the Heavy Airlift Wing based in Hungary, which has helped eleven European countries procure and operate a fleet of C-17 transport planes.
Some countries are also working more closely in regional formats, such as Baltic, Nordic, and Visegrád (Central European) cooperation. And a number of European governments are pursuing deeper bilateral cooperation, including the integration of parts of their armed forces in some cases. Examples include Franco-British, German-Dutch, and Finnish-Swedish initiatives.
Cooperation on operations has also become more ad hoc in recent years. The 2011 military intervention in Libya began as a set of national operations (run by France, the UK, and the United States) that were later transferred to NATO command. France intervened alone in Mali and the Central African Republic in 2013, with some equipment assistance from the United States. Both of these interventions were followed by (small) EU capacity-building missions and UN peacekeeping operations. And the current coalition bombing the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is exactly that: a coalition of the willing.
European governments are increasingly picking and choosing which forms of military cooperation they wish to pursue, depending on the capability project or military operation at hand. Sometimes they act through NATO or the EU, but almost all European governments are using other formats as well, whether regional, bilateral, or ad hoc coalitions. The combination of more complex security crises and reduced resources has meant that European governments are more focused on their core national interests than before, and both more targeted and flexible about how they wish to cooperate.
The success of European defense cooperation will depend on the convergence or divergence of national policies, in particular the abilities of France, Germany, and the UK to not only agree among themselves but also convince other European governments to support their approaches. There are some significant differences between Paris, Berlin, and London over geostrategic priorities, institutional preferences, and willingness to contribute to some types of operations. But these three aim at higher levels of military ambition than other European governments, as they try—to varying degrees—to be able to both defend at home and intervene abroad. Plus they collectively account for almost two-thirds of EU defense spending.
This means that the national defense policies of France, Germany, and Britain have an enormous impact on European defense as a whole. All the others have to pick and choose, and their choices are dramatically diverse: whereas Poland is looking to the East and is concerned mainly with territorial defense, Italy is focused on the South and is prepared to lead expeditionary operations.
In many ways, these trends are not new. Most major collaborative projects initiated from the 1960s to the 1990s—such as Eurofighter jets, A400M transporters, and the Eurocorps force—were ad hoc intergovernmental projects. The difference today is that more European defense cooperation is needed, because Europeans face a wider range of complex threats and have significantly reduced resources for their defense.
The renationalization of European defense cooperation can lead to stronger European defense, including through the EU and NATO, if European governments capitalize on the convergences and manage the divergences of their disparate national defense policies.
Daniel Keohane is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zürich, which recently published its annual analysis of Strategic Trends. The 2016 edition includes chapters on migration, energy, Asian power politics, and nuclear weapons, as well as the renationalization of European defense cooperation.