international analysis and commentary

Pursuing a sensible deal on European defense


“European defense” is a loaded concept. This simple expression carries such a problematic historical baggage that it has become a mantra for defense ministers to state “…but of course we are not up to creating a European army.” It is not even clear why it would be such a disaster to actually set the goal of a European army, given the nature and scope of the security challenges faced by the Old Continent. In any case, such is the climate of continental politics these days.

Yet, whatever the legacy of the past, all EU members urgently need to reach a pragmatic deal on security and defense to meet the growing set of (mostly declaratory) commitments they have made, and continue to make, in both the continental and Transatlantic context. It is one of many cases in which today’s Europe suffers from a serious mismatch between stated goals and day-to-day efforts.

We should be under no illusion that the pressure of events in Europe’s periphery (and beyond) combined with the advent of a new administration in Washington will create, per se, the conditions for a major breakthrough in the defense sector. It will take much more than that to change course.

That all the EU members largely – but not completely – share the same international security threats is taken for granted in European capitals. But how to get from this awareness to a working aggregate defense policy is a wholly different business.

For several years well into the post-Cold War era, it has been argued that efforts to build virtually any serious capability outside NATO would inevitably undermine the Alliance’s cohesion. As risks, threats and defense priorities have shifted (as they must given the rapid changes in international relations), this fundamental objection to joint European planning and capabilities has hardly changed.

However, it is sometimes overlooked that, technically, the EU does already possess a “common” foreign and security policy with a small but potentially significant defense component. This component is designed to also serve as the “European pillar” of NATO. The primacy of the Alliance in tackling the higher-end strategic threats has been the cornerstone of Euro-American relations thus far, reassuring the “Atlanticists” on both sides of the ocean. In fact, the classical concern – both among Europeans and Americans – that closer EU integration would end up weakening Transatlantic bonds has never been entirely convincing. It has often turned out to be a convenient argument for those who opposed EU integration for two main and distinct reasons: a sort of illusion of national sovereignty with no EU constraints (especially strong in the UK and France) and the unwillingness to contemplate a serious increase of defense expenditure (particularly prominent in Germany and Italy). This intellectual and political combination (“NATO first”, the sovereignty illusion, and budget constraints) has made it natural to just postpone some tough decisions.

In all this, the point is often missed by both policymakers and public opinions across the continent, that EU members are bound by treaty to give priority to the common foreign and security policy stance vis-a-vis their national policies. Systematically ignoring this proviso is what renders the whole debate on “European defense” incomplete and intellectually incoherent – well beyond the legitimate desire to keep NATO intact.

Admittedly there have been some steps in the right direction since the 1990s, especially since the adoption of the 2003 “Solana strategy” for the EU, which aimed to identify the core interests and values to form the basis for a coherent security and defense policy.

However, these positive steps have concentrated on two policy levels (important but insufficient): high-end international goals (a sort of wish list of what the EU would like to do in a sort of “fair weather” scenario), and technical capabilities for “rapid reaction” forces (relatively small elite units that have been trained and “earmarked” but never deployed). What is almost absent is the rest of the policy spectrum, i.e. the formulation of common interests of the operational type (beyond legitimate aspirations such as a neighborhood inhabited by “a ring of friends” or a rule-based international order), from which planners could then derive specific and actionable goals. In short, the weak link has been the lack of agreement on the specific goals that military forces (and other security tools) are supposed to pursue: there can be no adequate capabilities for undefined missions, because there simply is no evaluation criterion. And even the most capable integrated chain of command will not draft good plans – much less execute them – if it has no political mandate to do so.

Here, it is the national governments that need to make hard decisions.

Which brings us to the “European Union Global Strategy” released in June of 2016 – a general policy framework reflecting the progress in developing a “common strategic culture” among the EU members. The Strategy takes as its starting point the observation that the world is more complex, more connected, more contested. What follows from the analysis is a rather long series of ambitious shared objectives. Ordering them in terms of priority was probably not the document’s main task, but that leaves various question marks on how the inevitable trade-offs between partly competing goals might be resolved. In any event, the analysis is sound and can rationally guide common choices, provided we face the tough questions and take the reasoning to its logical consequences: with what exactly do the member states task the EU (from foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini down)?

To help find the answer, the approach of the Global Strategy ought to be complemented with what Barack Obama had to say about the wider world’s security outlook: as the outgoing US President stated in his last official trip to Europe in November, we are facing a “meaner, harsher, more troubled world.” This Realpolitik political testament should be taken very seriously.

We might thus reach a general conclusion: today’s global challenges are indeed best understood through the lenses of the Global Strategy (complexity, connectedness, power contests both of the “soft” and presumably the “hard” type), but what matters most to defense planners is probably the “zero sum game” reality captured by Obama’s statement (a worrisome shift toward hard power clashes and violent instability).

Returning to the drawing board of “European defense” against this background, what stands out is that Europe needs to be capable of acting autonomously in a harsher context than in the recent past.

This actually amounts to less than full “strategic autonomy” on a global scale (something that many find unrealistic in any case): what is essential is a set of capabilities to undertake a limited range of missions that are vital to common European interests. The open-ended process of a truly integrated EU security policy will then have a chance to develop its own momentum, without undermining Transatlantic ties and with the informed consent of citizens. In this evolutionary perspective, how exactly we define the role of the EU versus that of NATO is almost irrelevant – certainly to most high level members of the incoming Trump administration. What matters is that the Europeans, in any configuration they choose, must steadily increase their ability to tackle security risks and threats without American help, as well as in close cooperation with the US and possibly other partners. There is no contradiction between the two options.

Given existing and projected budget constraints, a conceptual leap is required, not just a generic commitment to share more resources and do more together: as Sven Biscop and a few other analysts have recently pointed out, we must aim for genuine integration – i.e. “also do away with all structures and units that are, in effect, useless” ( Otherwise, no major economies of scale and rationalization will be achieved. In a nutshell, unless most EU members accept to give up a certain amount of their own national autonomy (which is today largely fictional, given the scale and type of security challenges they confront), there is no future for “European defense”, and every member is condemned to become nearly irrelevant in the Trasantlantic and wider geostrategic scenarios. Of course, some bilateral or “mini-multilateral”, ad hoc arrangements will remain possible, but the influence the Europeans will exercise on global affairs will be minimal, with negative repercussions on their own security.

The only way to get “more bang for the buck” is to achieve critical mass. In turn, this would also help to overcome the deeply ingrained reluctance among Europeans to spend a higher percentage of their GDP on defense, to the extent that they saw the emergence of tangible capabilities. Let us not forget that, in the context of the American security guarantee based on NATO, this is widely perceived in the US as American funding that allows most Europeans to enjoy their very generous welfare systems. President-elect Trump has just made this point much more explicitly than others, but all US presidents (and NATO Secretaries Generals for that matter) have indeed made the same point for a long time. The paradox is that European leaders themselves have repeatedly subscribed to this view, but have then failed to persuade their citizens of the self-interests involved and the related resource requirements.

The European debate has come full circle to the need for a policy continuum: shared interests and risk assessment driving foreign policy, and foreign policy driving security and defense choices (doctrines, integrated structures, assets, budgets, etc.).

Indeed, the most pressing issues with security implications – terrorist movements, Russia, Syria (and Iraq), Libya, possibly Iran, failing states, etc. – require strategic thinking along the entire foreign policy-security-defense axis. We should openly recognize that several hot spots may suddenly develop a military dimension and that the “diplomacy/sanctions” axis does not (and should not) exhaust our options. Both deterrence and the limited use of military force may be necessary. Our predicament, after years of dodging the important questions on “European defense”, is confirmed by the very fact that certain risk assessments may seem taboo to some of us – military force in dealing with Russia and Iran? Intervening in Libya, again? Undertaking Mali-style operations under an EU flag?

Well, this is the stuff that defense policy is made of: the old adage was si vis pacem, para bellum; an adjusted – admittedly less concise – version for the EU could be “if you wish for peace, prepare for military operations in pursuit of agreed foreign policy goals.”

European defense does not start from scratch, and must fully incorporate a number of lessons learned on how to build (or not build) the underlying political consensus. Indeed, the central question is exactly the political will to act together, rather than the institutional arrangements that make that technically possible – however important they may be as enabling factors.