European security co-operation has never really been off the EU’s agenda, but controversy, political divisions and expense have for many years kept it well away from the top. Donald Trump’s election – along with concerns of a potentially emboldened Vladimir Putin – will likely ensure that this changes.
The question now is, what form should enhanced European security co-operation take?
The 2% Solution
The nation state remains the fundamental building bloc of international security. Given this reality, a useful step forward would be if more NATO members met the 2% of GDP target set by the alliance as the notional minimum budget for defence expenditure. At present, only four European countries – the UK, Poland, Estonia and Greece – do so. A commitment to addressing this would help shore up the alliance in light of Trump's apparent belief that nations not contributing their fair share do not merit US protection. These days, it is not enough to be serious about security; one must be demonstrably so.
Of course, not all EU states are members of NATO and vice versa. Finland and Sweden are contemplating joining the latter, for example, and NATO-member Turkey has a tortuous on-and-off relationship with the former. Nonetheless, as far as a potential Russian threat – currently the primary military challenge – goes, there is little practical difference. NATO would be very unlikely to sit back and watch Moscow outflank it to the north, regardless of Sweden and Finland's formal status, and anyway the EU also embodies security guarantees of its own.
No Armies up Europe's Sleeves
Nonetheless, talk of a 'European Army' remains misplaced and unhelpful, even if intended as an adjunct to NATO. Setting up any such separate force, beyond the existing multi-national battlegroups, would be a distraction and a duplication. Creating a command structure and logistical apparatus would take time and resources that will inevitably have to come from elsewhere – especially so long as Europe skimps on overall spending.
Besides, who would command such a force? Given that widespread suspicion of Brussels’ centralizing agenda is one of the crucial factors behind rising Euroscepticism, it is unlikely that there would be great enthusiasm for giving the Berlaymont its own army. There is always scope to expand co-operation and burden-sharing in everything from procurement to research. But the notion of a European Army is more a symptom of a wider integrative impulse that a serious response to the challenges facing the EU.
Parenthetically, not one Russian military officer with whom I have raised the idea has greeted it with anything less than enthusiasm. Moscow clearly believes that it would only detract from NATO and entangle Western defence in duplications and demarcation disputes. That alone should surely be a lethal strike against the idea.
Governance as the silver bullet
While robust and credible armed forces are essential – not least to reassure vulnerable allies and deter potential adventurism – they are only a part of the arsenal of twenty-first century warfare. One would have thought that the (sometimes overblown) furore over Russia's 'hybrid warfare' threat would have made this clear. In any case, the primary danger to Europe in the near future is not the unlikely prospect of Putin’s legions marching westward, but the present reality of political subversion, disinformation, hacking, coercive diplomacy and other instruments of non-kinetic mischief.
The important point about these tools is that it is our own weaknesses which they exploit. Russian propaganda finds a home where marginalised people are suspicious of the so-called 'mainstream media'; Russian spies exploit European unwillingness to challenge Moscow's aggression; and Russian money flows freely thanks to our willingness to turn a blind eye to business opportunities.
To these threats, the right response is to raise our standards of governance. This means everything from integrating marginal communities to educating voters in seeing through falsehoods and half-truths, knowing that European politicians will be subjected to the same scrutiny as Russian disinformation outlets. It means tightening controls on dirty money, even if it deprives the estate agents of London, the bankers of Frankfurt, and the hoteliers of Nice. And it means strengthening solidarity between states so they can turf out Russian spies without having to worry about being left high and dry when Moscow responds with its usual vindictiveness.
Governance, after all, is what the European Union – unlike NATO – is meant to be all about. Rather than trying to duplicate its uniformed second cousin, the EU should instead focus on 'hybrid defence'; both to address a very real continental security need and also to demonstrate its relevance.
Given that national needs vary widely, and that suspicion of Brussels over-reach is a security issue in its own right, this will also have to be done very carefully indeed. Rather than a one-size-fits-all strategy, the watchwords should be bilateral and regional cooperation, with Brussels as a facilitator of reform.
By all means spend that 2%, but in an age when counter-intelligence officers and forensic accountants can be as important defences as soldiers, the EU can find a new role for itself as a security actor fit for the twenty-first century.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.