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Putin Has Popped the EU Defense Bubble

No, the European Union cannot make the continent secure.

By , a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and an adjunct professor at Sciences Po.
French fighter jet takes off
French fighter jet takes off
A Mirage 2000-5F fighter jet takes off from an air base in Saint-Sauveur, France, on March 13. SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

One month into Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, European countries have stirred into action on defense. As large-scale war returns to the continent after a 77-year absence, governments are raising military spending, boosting readiness, and sending units to guard NATO’s eastern frontier. But all this action will lack a clear sense of direction and strategy as long as governments from Paris to Berlin remain stuck in their naive myths of the European Union as a military power.

Paris, especially, has doubled down on its policy to seize control of Europe’s defense from NATO, which French President Emmanuel Macron considers “brain dead,” and place it in the hands of the European Union. In Brussels, the EU bureaucracy is using Europe’s “geopolitical awakening” to justify a further centralization of security policy with the aim of creating an eventual EU army controlled by the European Council through qualified-majority voting. This plan would build on the flurry of recent EU defense initiatives—such as the almost $9 billion European Defence Fund and various small-scale defense projects—premised on the idea that federal EU military structures will ensure greater safety. Proponents of a so-called European Defence Union argue that it would allow member states to pool national capabilities, overcome inefficient duplication, and address inadequate economies of scale in military procurement. A joint EU defense, they argue, would also safeguard Europe in the event Americans elect an unfriendly or isolationist president instead of the trans-Atlanticist U.S. administration now in power in Washington.

The hollowness of the EU’s ambitions was aptly illustrated a few weeks ago at a European Council summit in Versailles, France. Seated within the palace’s opulent Hall of Mirrors, European leaders might have reflected on the location’s history as a place of bad decisions and French hubris, not least in imposing the disastrously flawed peace settlement after World War I. Instead, they proclaimed a Versailles Declaration that rehashed the same platitudes about strategic autonomy and European sovereignty that have hobbled European defense debates for many years.

One month into Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, European countries have stirred into action on defense. As large-scale war returns to the continent after a 77-year absence, governments are raising military spending, boosting readiness, and sending units to guard NATO’s eastern frontier. But all this action will lack a clear sense of direction and strategy as long as governments from Paris to Berlin remain stuck in their naive myths of the European Union as a military power.

Paris, especially, has doubled down on its policy to seize control of Europe’s defense from NATO, which French President Emmanuel Macron considers “brain dead,” and place it in the hands of the European Union. In Brussels, the EU bureaucracy is using Europe’s “geopolitical awakening” to justify a further centralization of security policy with the aim of creating an eventual EU army controlled by the European Council through qualified-majority voting. This plan would build on the flurry of recent EU defense initiatives—such as the almost $9 billion European Defence Fund and various small-scale defense projects—premised on the idea that federal EU military structures will ensure greater safety. Proponents of a so-called European Defence Union argue that it would allow member states to pool national capabilities, overcome inefficient duplication, and address inadequate economies of scale in military procurement. A joint EU defense, they argue, would also safeguard Europe in the event Americans elect an unfriendly or isolationist president instead of the trans-Atlanticist U.S. administration now in power in Washington.

The hollowness of the EU’s ambitions was aptly illustrated a few weeks ago at a European Council summit in Versailles, France. Seated within the palace’s opulent Hall of Mirrors, European leaders might have reflected on the location’s history as a place of bad decisions and French hubris, not least in imposing the disastrously flawed peace settlement after World War I. Instead, they proclaimed a Versailles Declaration that rehashed the same platitudes about strategic autonomy and European sovereignty that have hobbled European defense debates for many years.

Similarly, the EU’s Strategic Compass adopted earlier this week was notable for the sharp contrast between grandiose pronouncements and tiny deliverables, promising nothing less than to “defend the European security order”—for which Brussels hopes to have 5,000 troops on call by 2025. If this tiny number seems to ignore the new reality of war on the EU’s border, that’s because it does: The document’s final version largely tracks the drafts circulated before the start of the war on Feb. 24.

European leaders should discard these schemes and refocus their thinking on grand strategy and how best to secure the continent’s security against real and concrete threats. And that can only be done if Europeans harness their existing strategic partnerships and maintain national sovereignty on defense.

Russia’s war has crystallized the West’s will to act in ways that contradict talk about the EU as a security actor.

First, EU members will continue to depend on the enduring commitment of the United States and Britain for security on their continent. Over the past few weeks, Washington and London have been at the vanguard of providing additional troops to secure the European Union’s eastern flank, supplying much-needed defensive weapons to Ukraine and collecting intelligence on the Russian government and its military operations. NATO allies and partners working as a team in long-established modes of cooperation—and not an inexperienced EU working at cross-purposes or even actively undermining the alliance—will remain the security provider of first resort for Europe. Any other plan is wishful thinking at best and dangerous naiveté at worst.

Second, Europe’s security will rest on decisions by national governments, not federal EU bodies. These decisions include Germany’s historic plan to allocate around $112 billion for defense investment and 22 EU member states’ provision of weapons to Ukraine. Even with the European Commission’s pledge to supply Ukraine with $550 million in military aid, the actual deliveries will be from national stockpiles based on each government’s choices. And the ultimate decision to sacrifice the lives of soldiers in war can only be made by a government responsible to its people. To think this difficult decision could be handed down by Brussels is folly.

It’s illogical to believe that a federal EU defense policy would be any better at raising spending, pooling resources, or improving procurement than current structures, including NATO. Europe expanded its defense spending nearly threefold throughout the Cold War without any centralization at a supranational level. European countries increased defense spending when they perceived a security threat. And they will do so now—not because the EU has a defense policy, but because there is a hot war in Europe. Indeed, the only serious past attempt to federalize defense policy—the 1952 Treaty of Paris, which established the European Defence Community—failed after France flip-flopped, voting down the agreement it had initially proposed.

Paradoxically, attempts to federalize defense policy over the past three decades may have accelerated the decline in European defense spending as national governments felt they could shift responsibility to the EU. In fact, one of the key arguments for a centralized EU defense put forward by Brussels was cost savings. Strategic considerations or the goal of greater military capabilities played virtually no role in the EU security debate.

For instance, the European Parliament’s in-house think tank theorized that efficiency gains in EU defense would yield cost reductions of $28 billion to $143 billion. Even after Russia’s 2014 attack on Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, Brussels kept on touting these drastic cuts—around half of EU member states’ overall defense spending—as part of the EU’s so-called global strategy. Looking to slash defense spending while paying lip service to NATO pledges to increase it resulted in lost time and political confusion.

In fact, the European Defence Fund, which promotes defense cooperation among EU member states, could lead to even more inefficient production, as it creates new subsidies to joint projects that might otherwise not occur. The fund’s rules are highly politicized, requiring spending to be spread across a mix of countries and companies that may not be determined by military logic. In any event, its minuscule scale of about $1 billion per year is not going to change European security capabilities. Any legitimate issues surrounding duplication and economies of scale, such as those involved in procuring transport planes or other high-end equipment, can be addressed by coalitions of willing national governments within NATO.

Russia’s war has crystallized the West’s will to act in ways that contradict talk about the EU as a geopolitical actor in the security sphere. Within days of Russia’s attack, 25 NATO allies and partners began sending sophisticated weapons and military equipment to help Ukraine defend itself. Drawing from national stockpiles, countries provided anti-tank weapons, anti-aircraft missiles, protective gear, small arms, and ammunition. Governments are also still considering whether to provide fighter jets to Ukraine. All of these decisions were coordinated within NATO and decided by national governments. This collective defense system—with the United States in the lead—worked with the energy and dispatch required in a crisis.

Consider a scenario if defense policy was centralized within the EU. How many meetings of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council would be required before the same decisions to arm Ukraine could be authorized? Would Kremlin-supporting members, such as Hungary, be able to block these actions? Would countries agree to be overruled by majority vote? Conversely, could the EU high representative for foreign affairs supply arms on their own authority or compel national ministers to do so? Would European citizens feel more secure under this alternative decision-making structure?

The core reason for NATO’s continuing effectiveness and primacy is that it does not seek to centralize and federalize defense policy as the EU hopes to do with its various institutions and initiatives. Instead, NATO is merely a forum for deliberation and coordination, subject to national decisions and often putting together coalitions of the willing. What counts is not the arena but the underlying players and their capabilities.

None of the grand plans for an EU military—and certainly not Brussels’ ideas that it can be done on the cheap—should distract from the fact that European countries need to invest much more in their own national capabilities, including armies, navies, air forces, and cyberunits. They need to form effective teams rather than hope for supranational, EU-level solutions. Europe has the economic might and technological wherewithal to generate significant defense capabilities now that Russia’s aggression has focused minds and clarified threats.

Europe cannot meet this challenge alone, just as the United States cannot tackle the threats and challenges arising from Russia and China on its own. Europe and the United States need each other and other democratic countries around the world. This cooperation is already taking place: Australia was one of the first of NATO’s outside partners to offer military aid to Ukraine. Japan has opened its doors to Ukrainian refugees. Canberra and Tokyo both support the trans-Atlantic sanctions against Russia.

What if a future U.S. administration is less committed to Europe’s security than the Biden administration? That, too, is not an issue that will be magically resolved by a federalized EU defense. The same concern might be raised about the steadfastness of other national governments, such as France or Germany. The only realistic solution is to continually make the case for shared security, build national strength, and meet future challenges as a team. Supranational, centralized options are a mirage.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has highlighted the enduring roles of non-EU powers—above all, the United States and Britain—as European powers and security guarantors of the first order. It has also revealed the importance of national governments stepping up to the challenge of collective defense. Recognizing this underlying reality will put European security on a much sounder footing than the muddled thinking of recent years.

Bart M. J. Szewczyk is a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, an adjunct professor at Sciences Po, a former member of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, a former advisor on refugee policy to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and the author of Europe’s Grand Strategy: Navigating a New World Order. Twitter: @bartszewczyk

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