Europe needs the United States. We often (loudly) disagree with American foreign policy, yet we remain totally reliant on the security umbrella our friends across the Atlantic provide. Which is why European leaders have been so alarmed by the anti-NATO rhetoric coming from the White House, and possibly why the recent “defence pact” between 23 EU Member States (the so-called “Permanent Structured Cooperation”, or PESCO) was signed.
Without American support, European military capabilities are severely limited. The 2011 intervention in Libya (which was, on the face of it, a European-led campaign) relied heavily on the US for “intelligence-gathering aircraft, aerial refueling tankers and precision-guidance kits for bombs”. Some commentators point to the Libya intervention as proof that Europe lacks the capabilities to launch or sustain significant military operations without the US propping them up.
Yes, many people believe the Libya mission was a mistake (or, at least, that greater support should have been offered after the regime collapsed). Nevertheless, it raises awkward questions about whether Europe can confidently look after its own defences.
US presidents have been chastising Europeans for failing to take defence seriously for years. In the meantime, the security situation has deteriorated – with the Syrian civil war and rise of Islamic State, the Russian annexation of Crimea and Ukrainian civil war, and political instability in North Africa in the wake of the Arab Spring.
US President Donald Trump has been very critical of European defence spending. He’s taken plenty of flack for this, but some of our commenters think it’s actually quite a reasonable position. For example, Paul says: “EU countries need to start putting their hands in their pocket and contribute to their own defence instead of relying on the few that do take their security seriously.”
To get a response, we put Paul’s comment Sir Richard Shirreff, former NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2011-2014). How would he react?
Well, I would agree with both Paul and Mr Trump. European nations do need to start putting their money where their mouth is on defence. All the member nations of NATO have signed up to the notion of 2% of GDP being spent on defence, and there are only some five nations in NATO that do that. Most European nations do not. Even the UK needs to ensure that the money it spends on defence is going on defence, not civil service pensions and intelligence agency budgets as a result of some creative accounting.
So, it is really important. In fact, I would say that given the cumulative disarmament of the last at least two decades in Europe, European nations need to spend rather more than 2% on defence in order to generate real, genuine defence capability.
Having said all that, while I agree that Mr Trump was right to highlight this, it would also be very important to hear a resounding commitment from Mr Trump to NATO, to the concept of Article 5, and to his willingness to come to the aid of a NATO member under attack. Because, as you’ll remember, as a candidate he cast doubt upon that.
For another perspective, we also put Paul’s comment to Mihnea Motoc, who was previously Romanian Minister of Defence until January 2017. What would he say?
Yes, they should. But just to set the record straight, President Trump is the fourth American president in a row to make that point. That having been said, I think we can all agree that Europe has itself grown increasingly more aware that it needs to take more of its security into its own hand for other, more pressing reasons. Chief among which being the unprecedented combination of conventional threats in basically all of our neighbourhoods, and also asymmetric risks we saw striking through European territory, and everyone could feel that quite directly from 2014 onward.
So, I would say there is both the need to spend more and the need to spend better. Most of the EU Member States are bound by NATO’s recommendations to set defence expenditure at 2% of GDP. If all EU Member States achieved that level of spending, the EU’s total military expenditure would increase by no less than 85 billion euros, which would be a considerable expansion of defence expenditure.
On the other hand, the process the Commission launched around the European Defence Fund is not necessarily about spending more. It is rather about spending together, spending better. It is about economies of scale, and it is about encouraging Member States to get out of the present fragmentation and overlaps that result from conducting defence research or procurement strictly at the national level, and resort more to defence co-operation across Europe. So, it’s not necessarily about spending more in this process, although that would be far from hurting anyone. It is rather about spending more wisely.
So what about recent developments? Several EU countries recently signed up to a joint notification on the Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO. On the other hand, EU states have been talking about closer defence cooperation for literally decades. Will it really be any different this time?
Some of our commenters are optimistic. Mugur, for example, thinks Brexit might finally allow meaningful progress to be made in EU defence co-operation. Is he right? How would Sir Richard Shirreff respond?
Well, I say that I don’t think it will make a great deal of difference. It might sound as if things are going to be different and, of course, Brexit will change the equation. The concern I have is that it will be seen as a sort of political get-out to avoid having to really deliver proper effective military capability. The best way ahead for European defence remains NATO, the most successful alliance the world has ever seen. The reason we’ve been lucky enough to maintain peace in Europe for 70 years is, of course, partly the effect of the European Union in breaking down the internecine squabbles between European nations, but ultimately European defence – particularly from outside threats – has rested on NATO, and will continue to rest on NATO.
My other concern is that, with Brexit and with Britain no longer around the European Council table, you’re going to have the brakes taken off on the development of what you might call the unnecessary duplication of military capabilities, such as operational headquarters, etc., which can already be done very effectively through NATO as a result of the Berlin Plus agreement between the EU and NATO… So, I’m afraid I’m pretty cynical about PESCO. I think it sounds good, but I’m not convinced it’s going to deliver.
Finally, what would Mihnea Motoc‘s reaction be to Mugur?
Yes, I do think it will be different. I’m sure we will get it right, making defence co-operation the norm between Member States and not the exception as is currently the case. That is not true only for the PESCO that was recently launched, but also for the whole process that the Commission initiated last June with the EU Security and Defence Package.
Let me give you a few reasons why I think it’s not going to be yet another false start on defence co-operation. Firstly, there is an exceptionally favourable political context. There is clear and massive support from Member States. We saw not less than 23 Member States already at the starting line for PESCO. These notifications come with a relatively far-reaching list of binding commitments for Member States that subscribe to it. Furthermore, there are considerable financial incentives for deeper co-operation that the Commission has put forward, including in the PESCO context. The European Defence Fund can thus co-finance up to 30% of projects that are submitted under PESCO. So, these are just a few reasons why there is widespread confidence, and I for one certainly trust that we will get it right this time.
As for Brexit… Well, it might be that we would not even have this cooperation if it wasn’t for Brexit, which of course is a painful event for all of us. Brexit was followed by a very positive and substantial Position Paper that the UK has put together on defence and security co-operation for after Brexit. However, Brexit is just one of the factors that explains the current dynamics on European defence. Let us recall that it was for the first time in 2014 when the then-candidate for EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, made defence policy a political priority for his campaign. Later on it has become a political priority for this Commission and for the EU as such. That was long before the Brexit referendum.
Why can’t Europe take care of its own defence? Will Brexit clear the way for deeper EU defence cooperation? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!