Europe is losing the battle to unite its military efforts

A fragmented Europe looks to consolidate defence as tensions mount with its transatlantic ally. But shortfalls in defence capabilities and an imprecise strategic approach stand in the way of meaningful European integration

Feature image
As difficult as it may be to spur meaningful cooperation between the member states, there’s ample evidence that finding common ground could finally address Europe’s military capability shortfalls

It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world,” wrote historian Robert Kagan in 2002. He had hit upon an uncomfortable truth − at the time, the US was on the verge of invading Iraq. The crisis exposed a growing fault line in the transatlantic alliance: while the US was content to flex its military might on the world stage, Europe had developed a strong aversion to power politics.

Since Kagan’s comment, the gulf between the US and Europe has only widened, and Europe’s peacekeeping approach has continued to aggravate the US. At his first NATO conference, President Donald Trump tore into the US’ European allies for not spending enough on defence. He then refused to affirm Article 5, which promises that all allies will mobilise if one is attacked. Even though he endorsed the article two weeks later, he had set alarm bells ringing among European member states, which feared that their military dependence on the US could be at risk.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, with no immediate threat on the horizon, European countries slashed their defence budgets

Trump’s undermining of the alliance has convinced a number of leaders that Europe needs to take greater responsibility for its own defence. In November 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron called NATO “brain dead” just weeks before members were due to celebrate the alliance’s 70th birthday. He argued that Europe was created to be the US’ junior partner and that this arrangement, in an age of volatile US leadership and growing Chinese influence, was no longer viable.

Many analysts saw Macron’s disruptive comments as a wake-up call to his European allies. “Considering how much inertia you have in politics – particularly in Europe – if you don’t produce a controversial statement, it’s unlikely to get much attention,” said Fabrice Pothier, Chief Strategy Officer at Rasmussen Global. “I think [Macron’s comments were] as much about grabbing the attention of other European leaders as about Macron putting himself at the centre of the conversation. In that sense, this did work, because you could see that then the agenda was very much around that question.”

Those most outraged by Macron’s comments were the countries in Central and Eastern Europe. To these nations, the US is a key deterrent against Russia, which they see as an imminent threat. “Macron may be yearning for the United States of Europe with its own military, but deliberately destroying the transatlantic alliance, something that brings us together and helps us more effectively face the dangers of the world, that’s just moronic,” said Marko Mihkelson, Vice Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Estonia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also came to NATO’s defence. “The preservation of NATO is in our fundamental interest, even more so than during the Cold War,” she told MPs in the Bundestag. “For the time being, Europe can’t defend itself on its own – we are reliant on this transatlantic alliance.”

Europe’s dependence on the US is pronounced. In 2019, Körber-Stiftung and the International Institute for Strategic Studies conducted a policy game to see how Europe would cope in a broken alliance. At first, the bloc tried to convince the US to re-join NATO, but in doing so, it neglected to address its own military shortcomings. Analysts found that it was only once the security situation had deteriorated significantly in Southern and Eastern Europe that European forces took proactive steps to improve their military capabilities. Most worrying of all, once the US security guarantee was off the table, the principles of solidarity among the remaining NATO countries showed signs of waning: without the US, they were more cautious about coming to one another’s defence.

While this showed that Europe couldn’t cope without the US, it also illustrated the need for Europe to bolster its own defence forces. Many analysts and policymakers think Macron has a point when he calls for a sovereign Europe, but they are divided as to what defence cooperation will look like, and how to get there.

A relationship on the rocks
In the aftermath of the Cold War, with no immediate threat on the horizon, European countries slashed their defence budgets, setting the tone for the decades to follow. According to data from the European Defence Agency, research and technology as a percentage of total defence spending has been steadily decreasing since 2006.

This has left Europe with critical shortfalls in its defence capabilities and exacerbated its military dependence on the US – much to the latter’s annoyance. “These people could not organise a three-car motorcade if their lives depended on it,” bemoaned an anonymous high-ranking official in the Bush administration when Europe asked the US to intervene in the Bosnian war. Europe had to turn to the US once again in 2011 when a Franco-British air campaign in Libya ran out of munitions and equipment.

With this in mind, Trump’s insistence that Europe pays its fair share towards NATO is not a new stance. Previous administrations have argued the same. “If we’ve got collective defence, it means that everybody’s got to chip in,” said President Barack Obama at a press conference in Brussels in 2014. As Tara Varma, head of the Paris office at the European Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out to European CEO, Trump’s more aggressive attitude towards NATO was a tipping point: “I think it became clear that the Europeans couldn’t really pretend anymore.”

It was partly thanks to Trump that, after years of resistance, Germany has agreed to raise defence spending from 1.42 percent of GDP in 2020 to 1.5 percent by 2024 and two percent by the start of the 2030s. Many other nations are also taking steps to boost their military capabilities: in 2017, 25 member states signed up to the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), a union meant to increase the number of cooperative defence projects in Europe. In addition, the EU has committed €13bn to the European Defence Fund in its current seven-year budget cycle, compared with just €590m for 2017-20.

NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium

However, spending more may not be sufficient to address these shortfalls. “In my view, the bottom line is that increasing the defence budget won’t be enough,” said Hugo Meijer, Director of the European Initiative for Security Studies. “Of course, that’s in the right direction, but it’s not enough because of the fragmentation of the defence industry.” Europe has 178 different weapons systems compared to the US, which has just 30.

At the same time, without a more cohesive defence strategy, Europe’s position as a geopolitical actor is weaker. With China and the US competing on the global stage, there are fears of Europe’s growing irrelevance. In this climate, Europe needs to protect its interests rather than leave its defence vulnerable to the goodwill of the US.

Going it alone
With tensions between Europe and its transatlantic ally increasing, the idea of European autonomy has gained ground. “It stems from the French concept of strategic autonomy, which can be defined as the ability to decide and act freely in an interdependent world,” Varma explains.

There are two diverging models of French strategic autonomy, as Pothier points out: the Minitel model and the Airbus model. Minitel was an early French computer terminal rolled out in the 1980s. Long before the world wide web had been invented, many people in France were already shopping, gaming and accessing their bank accounts online. Even when the internet went global, France stuck doggedly with its Minitel system. “At the time, engineers and government officials felt that the internet would be too dependent on the US, which actually proved to be wrong,” Pothier told European CEO. This independent system inevitably fell behind and set France back in terms of internet adoption.

It’s difficult to reach a consensus among Europeans regarding what security threats should be prioritised and what the future relationship with the US should be

While the Minitel model of sovereignty was French-focused, the Airbus model is more open. Despite being a European corporation, Airbus’ products are not all manufactured in Europe: many of its systems come from Boeing and its subcontractors. “Here we have a situation where we have our own champion, but it’s a champion that is interdependent and embedded in a global context,” said Pothier. “And I think that’s the definition of European sovereignty that would fly much better with the rest of Europe.”

Despite these nuances, the rhetoric around strategic autonomy has raised eyebrows inside Europe and out. In particular, talk of a European military has many Eurosceptics fearing conscription into an army under centralised command. Another problem with the concept is that, just as NATO lacks solidarity, Europe itself is divided. “We’ve seen growing fragmentation in threat perceptions and strategic priorities across the continent,” said Meijer. To Europe’s south, terrorism and regional instability in Northern Africa and the Middle East represent the greatest threat. Meanwhile, countries in Central and Eastern Europe are primarily concerned with keeping Russia at bay and are wary of doing anything to damage relations with the US. By comparison, Macron has suggested that NATO’s primary threat is terrorism, not Russia, and has even pursued a policy of rapprochement with Russia to keep President Vladimir Putin onside.

As such, it’s difficult to reach a consensus among Europeans regarding what security threats should be prioritised and what the future relationship with the US should be. According to the European Parliament’s 2018 Delivering on Europe study, 68 percent of EU citizens think the EU should do more with regards to defence. However, Varma found they struggle to agree on what that would involve. She explained: “17 member states told us that their relationship to the US was really the key component of their approach to European strategic autonomy. And yet, more than half of them tell us that they believe they need more capabilities that are for now provided by NATO. This schizophrenic approach is something we’ve identified all along.”

Seeing double
As difficult as it may be to spur meaningful cooperation between the member states, there’s ample evidence that finding common ground could finally address Europe’s military capability shortfalls. Today, 80 percent of the development of defence capabilities in Europe takes place on the national level.

An estimated €26.4bn could be used more efficiently if countries pooled their resources and reduced duplication. Europe is also notorious for its slow innovation cycles, which could be sped up if it harmonised assets.

In addition, Europe’s integrated defence industry is vulnerable to policy changes by a single government. Currently, if one government withdraws a licence, an export could be blocked across the board. This was demonstrated when Germany imposed a ban on arms exports to Saudi Arabia in 2018 after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, endangering billions of euros of military orders. Because of this, Alessandro Profumo, the CEO of defence company Leonardo, suggested in November 2019 that European defence programmes should be issued with a single weapons export licence so independent government policies would not affect the supply chain.

The defence procurement policies of 2009 were among the first moves to counter fragmentation in Europe’s defence market. Under these rules, it was made harder for member states to protect their national suppliers. This led to more cross-border acquisitions and mergers in the industry. But Sophia Besch, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, points out that these have had limited success: member states are dodging the policies by invoking Article 346, which allows governments to protect issues relating to their security, meaning they have to comply when it comes to maintenance and repair but not in terms of major military equipment contracts.

Naturally, countries want to protect their security interests and are reluctant to give up autonomy. Other nations are also concerned that such cooperation will drive up the cost of defence equipment and reduce supply, leaving Europe weaker and less capable of fighting instability. Nonetheless, a number of member states are starting to recognise the importance of centralising the development of weapons. To this end, the EU has agreed to develop more defence projects independently of the US. These European countries plan to work together to build new tanks, ships and technology. For some analysts, this move will be critical if Europe is to remain relevant as a geopolitical actor. “The EU should use the single market − its economic power − to its advantage,” said Varma. “Because, to me, the massive economic power of the EU is part of its strategic autonomy. Right now it’s the biggest, most powerful instrument it has.”

Uncharted territory
Currently, the European market is so closely integrated with the US’ that a stronger Europe would take some decoupling. Of Europe’s member states, France and Italy have arguably the most to gain from this. They each have large defence companies, such as Thales and Leonardo, that would stand to benefit if European nations began diverting funds away from US defence firms and closer to home.

But this idea is less popular with the US. “The challenge is that many European companies are extremely dependent on American technology,” said Meijer. “The common European defence having an autonomous defence industrial base would mean reducing the level of dependence on the US. And this might create friction.” The American Chamber of Commerce warned in 2018 that if the EU pursued a Buy European Act in the defence industry, the US might retaliate by closing off its market. This is an alarming prospect for countries like Sweden, whose defence industry is deeply integrated with the US’.

Indeed, the US has not welcomed the prospect of a stronger Europe. In May 2019, Washington sent a letter to Brussels warning that PESCO and the European Defence Fund would “produce duplication, non-interoperable military systems, diversion of scarce defence resources and unnecessary competition between NATO and the EU”. Brussels responded by saying it was “fully committed to transatlantic ties”, but also insisted the US award more defence contracts to European companies. According to the letter, between 2011 and 2015, more than three quarters of international defence contracts in the EU went to US companies.

The US has spent decades bemoaning Europe’s insufficient military spending. Now that the EU is ready to take control of its defence, the US has changed its tune. But ultimately, the US stands to benefit from a Europe with greater defence capabilities. Rather than being a competitor to NATO, a cohesive defence union in Europe could make the EU a stronger partner and help mend the growing divisions between the allies.