Will the Europeans ever get their act together on security?

Unlike saving the euro, saving CSDP and building Europe's shared defence and security capacity need not cost a cent. It would also be invaluable in helping the EU develop as a serious foreign policy actor.  

Unlike saving the euro, saving CSDP and building Europe's shared defence and security capacity need not cost a penny. It would also be invaluable in helping the EU develop as a serious foreign policy actor.


At last year’s Munich Security Conference, Anders Fogh Rasmussen took to the stage to lecture European leaders about cuts: “Over the past two years, defence spending by NATO’s European member nations has shrunk by some $45 billion – that is the equivalent of Germany’s entire annual defence budget”, he complained. He then went on to say that China had tripled its defence expenditure over the past decade, while India increased spending by almost 60%. The NATO boss’s speech was echoed a few months later by Robert Gates in his valedictory speech in Brussels, when he warned of Congressional unwillingness to continue to pay for the defence of “nations apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets”.

These figures and complaints were as misleading as they were unilluminating. There are wide variations in spending across Europe, ranging from cuts of more than one quarter in Latvia and Bulgaria to continued growth in defence spending in Sweden and Poland.  Even after the cuts, Europeans still comfortably outspend all of the BRIC countries combined (in 2010 the 27 EU members accounted for 31% of non-US global defence spending, and had 1.6 million military personnel in uniform).
 Given that that US will cut a staggering $450 billion over the next 10 years, it seems reasonable for European countries who are safer than they have been for decades and going through a major financial crisis to cut some of their spending.

But although complaints about spending levels miss the target, Europeans should be careful of dismissing too readily Gates’s more thoughtful concerns about the ‘demilitarisation’ of a Europe which seems no longer serious about defence. It would be easy to riposte that it was the  Europeans who led the way into Libya (and dragged a reluctant United States into the theatre in their wake). But half the Europeans stayed on the sidelines – and the campaign high-lighted alarming deficiencies in European capabilities. So, whilst it would be unfair to tag all Europeans as soft and conflict-averse, it is clear that wide differences in strategic culture persist – and that the overall capability output that Europe achieves for its still-substantial defence spending is pathetically inadequate.

In sum, there needs to be a major campaign to shame European governments into spending their money in a different way. As Nick Witney has written in his ECFR paper on ‘How to Stop the Demilitarisation of Europe’, what is worrying is not so much the scale of cuts as the way they have been made: “strictly on a national basis, without any attempt at consultation or co-ordination within either NATO or the EU, and with no regard to the overall defence capability which will result from the sum of these national decisions”. As long as Europeans continue to behave like this, it will be hard to credit them with being truly serious about defence.

Europe’s attempts to develop a common security and defence policy have progressed in fits and starts since the humiliating failure of Europeans to be able to keep the peace in the former Yugoslavia. But the problem is that it has relied to much on voluntary co-ordination between defence establishments that are conservative in nature and driven by national vested interests. The “bottom-up” approach to defence reform has failed each time it has been adopted, from the European Capabilities Action Plan after the Anglo-French summit at St. Malo in 1998, right up to the recent Ghent Initiative, which is trickling into the sands.

At various points, European leaders have drawn inspiration from monetary union to develop ideas that had more hope of working. One such innovation was the idea – in the Lisbon Treaty – of calling for “permanent structured co-operation”. The theory was that an avant-garde would develop with members needing to achieve a series of binding criteria to join. There could have been a chance of moving this forward during the Polish presidency – but it had already been killed by the Anglo-French defence deal.

Part of the problem is that Britain has consistently been seen as the indispensable – but unavailable – partner for any effort of this kind. While Tony Blair dreamt of Europe becoming a “super-power, not a super-state” the current government’s obsession with protecting the patina of sovereignty means that they are only comfortable ‘pooling and sharing’ bilaterally with Paris and are allergic to going through Brussels. This aversion to working through Brussels means that the deal – which should have been a historic foundation for a more effective European defence capability – is shaping up as  an exclusive bilateral agreement that will not motivate others.

In the absence of a common, politically driven framework, all the talk of “pooling and sharing” will remain just that. There are lots of opportunities for moving beyond rhetoric such as developing common European air-policing, or collectively fixing the various holes in capability (starting with intelligence and reconnaissance) pointed up by the Libya campaign. Enormous savings could be had from cutting out all the duplication of national support and training infrastructures. But these steps will not be developed at more than a snail’s pace if national defence establishments are left to their own means. Witney has suggested two ways to move this forward. Firstly, to launch a heavyweight European Defence Review which could redefine a common European defence strategy, and come up with a number of  major, ‘top-down’ initiatives for getting more bang for the defence euro (or indeed pound, or zloty, or…). This could then be backed by “European Defence Semesters”. Eurozone governments have accepted the idea of a “European semester” before finalising their national budgetary plans; Witney argues that defence needs the same. Of course, sovereign nations will always reserve the right to determine their own defence budgets. But that is not a valid excuse for failing to consult their partners, or bugging out of the mutual accountability implicit in any common policy.

The big question is who could launch this kind of effort? It cannot come from Brussels institutions that will not want to upset member states that will be hostile to this at a time when they are still trying to establish themselves. The Danish presidency has opted out of CSDP.  And waiting for London to lead is like waiting for the proverbial Godot. The only solution could be for the so-called Weimar triangle – of France, Germany, and Poland – to launch this kind of initiative.  Rather than expending their energy advocating an EU Operational Headquarters – a worthy but second-order objective, and one which London delights in vetoing – they should raise their sights and push instead for a Defence Review initiative that could transform the whole landscape.

Twenty years ago, in the bourgeois town of Maastricht, European leaders came together to agree two historic projects which were to define Europe as a global player in the 21st century. The first project – monetary union – is on the ropes, but Europe’s governments, elites and citizens are up in arms to prevent its destruction. The second project – turning Europe into a serious foreign policy actor – is in danger of dying without a requiem. But unlike the euro which needs massive resources to prop up, European governments could save CSDP without spending an extra penny or centime. It is really just a matter of daring.

A version of this article first appeared in The Security Times of the Munich Security Conference.



The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.