Will the EU get serious on defence?

Opinion piece (Prospect)
26 December 2016

Citizens of the European Union do not feel safe. As recent surveys have shown, faced with deteriorating security at borders, tensions between Russia and the west, the migration crisis and the threat of terrorism, Europeans feel that the EU is not doing enough to protect them.

Politicians listened and made defence a priority in 2016, discussing it at the mid-December European Council meeting. The result has been proposals to reform the funding and the command of EU operations, and initiatives to strengthen the EU’s defence industries. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, eventually aims to achieve “strategic autonomy” in defence: that is, the ability to operate without the help of the United States.

This is not the first time that the EU has tried to create a stronger role for itself in defence. But its Common Defence and Security Policy has long been a paper tiger and failed to galvanize member-states into investing real money in their own security. Two recent events, however, have created an unprecedented sense of urgency: the Brexit referendum result and Donald Trump’s election as US president. But disagreements over strategic priorities and threat assessments among the EU27 mean that it is far from clear that the the current enthusiasm will be sustained.

Many in Brussels hope that with the UK’s imminent departure, the EU can “unfreeze” some of the defence proposals that the country has vetoed in the past and go ahead with, for example, an EU operational headquarters. But things are not going to be that easy. First, other EU defence-sceptics, which had previously hidden behind Britain, have come forward. Latvia, Poland and Lithuania have already opposed ideas for an EU operational headquarters, arguing that there is no need to duplicate Nato. The proposals for the OHQ hence look rather modest: its role is limited to training missions and civilian operations.

Second, with Brexit, the EU loses one of only two credible military powers. The UK is one of only four members that spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence and it has the largest number of deployable forces. At present, it contributes to European security through both the EU and Nato, though defence spending may be at risk if the economy suffers following Brexit. New structures and institutions mean little if the EU does not have access to credible capabilities and forces. Finally, the UK has also been an important ally of the European Commission’s efforts to remove national protectionism in European defence markets—without it, these efforts may stall.

Thus the EU has a real interest in keeping the UK involved in the EU’s military operations and its defence market. Currently, EU representatives think that the brunt of the responsibility for proposing the terms of association lies with the UK as the leaving party. But seeing how distracted Britain still is by domestic political struggles, it would make sense for the EU to go ahead and define the terms on which the UK could continue to participate in defence policy. The UK’s defence capabilities will become leverage during the Brexit negotiations, for better or for worse. But both sides should work to protect the defence sphere from the fallout of a worsening relationship between the UK and the EU27.

What will be the effect of Trump on the EU’s defence plans? It will likely spur greater levels of military spending among European leaders. But even if the EU puts more resources into defence, the US security guarantee is weakened, and Europeans cannot easily replace it. During his campaign, Trump displayed a transactional, zero-sum view of alliances. He called Nato “obsolete” and suggested that he would assess whether European allies were contributing enough to their defence before deciding whether to come to their aid.

Central and Eastern European countries in particular are concerned about Trump’s murky ties to the Kremlin, but European elections in 2017 are likely to strengthen the influence of Putinophiles in EU governments as well. Europeans who feel threatened by Russia find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to finding a reliable defence partner. Europe’s stance vis-à-vis Russia will be a crucial immediate test for the EU’s resolve to establish itself as a plausible defence actor.

In the end, much will depend on leadership, not just from Brussels, but from key member states. France and Germany are the obvious countries to take charge—but Paris and Berlin have very different visions for EU defence, and both are facing domestic challenges in 2017. Right now, the stakes have never been higher for the EU’s defence policy—but the political message of unity so far remains largely aspirational.